06 November 1991

A Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness

P: Let us confess before God and one another.

C: Loving God, you gave yourself as Christ on the cross for me and for the whole world. I have been many things in my life, and had I been with you at your crucifixion, I might have acted as did the people of the time. I might have mocked you for seeming powerless, derided you for preaching false doctrine, cursed you for breaking the Law as I understood it, dismissed you for seeming crazy, or ignored you altogether. Even if I had been one of your followers, I know that I would have been too cowardly and self-effacing to speak in your defense, because no one did. By my own action, or by my lack of action, I would have contributed to your pain and death. In spite of this, I have been self-righteous, quick to boast of the commandments I keep, quick to condemn the transgressions of others, and slow to forgive them. This is who I have been and how I have lived my life. I am in need of your Grace. Forgive me, love me, and help me by your Spirit to follow you joyfully. Fill me with your love, that I may love others.

P: Do you trust in God's compassion, and believe in God's love and redeeming power for yourself and your neighbor?

C: I do.

P: Then I declare to you God's forgiveness of all your sin, God's power to guide you on your journey to life everlasting, and God's love to accompany you always. In God's name I declare to you that you are God's children, sisters and brothers of Christ, inheritors with Him of God's Kingdom.

C: Thanks be to God.

An Abrahamic Prayer

This prayer is for reading aloud by three voices, representing the three faith-communities who claim to be Children of Abraham — Jews, Christians, and Muslims. "S" indicates the the Shema, the prayer of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), "F" indicates al-Fatihah, the Opening chapter of the Qur'an, and "L" indicates the Lord's Prayer from the Gospel according to Matthew (6:9-13).

S:Hear, O God's People,
F: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful,
L: Our Father, who art in Heaven,
S: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.
F: Praise be to God, the Lord of the worlds, the Compassionate, the Merciful, Ruler of the day of Judgment.
L: Hallowed be Thy name.
S: You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources.
F: Thee do we serve,
L: Thy Kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
S: Let these matters that I command you today be upon your heart.
F: Thee do we ask for help
L: Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
S: Teach these things thoroughly to your children, and speak of them while you walk, when you retire, and when you arise.
F: Guide us into the right path,
L: And lead us not into temptation,
F: Not into the path of those upon whom wrath is brought down, nor of those who go astray.
L: But deliver us from evil.
S: Bind these matters as a sign upon your arm, and let them be before your eyes. And write them upon the doorposts of your houses and upon your gates.
L: For Thine is the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever and ever.
All: Amen.

Testing One, Two, Three, Four

On the cessation of US Nuclear Testing

revised 1994

I grow daily to honor facts more and more, and theory less and less. A fact, it seems to me, is a great thing — a sentence printed, if not by God, then at least by the Devil. — Thomas Carlyle, 1836


Making Holes

"...three, two, one, zero-time," announced a calm voice. We watched the TV monitors. The helicopter-mounted camera showed a circle of dust spreading from ground zero, or , "GZ," as we call it, and another mounted on an instrument trailer began to shake. Then nothing. Twenty minutes of it.

"It’s working its way to the top," someone said, referring to the fracturing of the rock. The seismometer trace went wild, and suddenly the ground around GZ slumped, forming the subsidence crater. Other than the mad rush for the next six hours to make sure we got reliable data, that was that. A contained underground test not of a nuclear weapon, but of an experimental nuclear explosive. The public little appreciates that there is sometimes a difference.

The difference is that a nuclear weapon is designed and manufactured so that it can be stored for a long time and, if need be, delivered to a target and exploded. An experimental nuclear explosive may be a complicated, jury-rigged affair, requiring such delicate handling, and containing such limited life-time parts, that we can barely make it work at all even in a controlled environment like the Nevada Test Site. Such a device is not necessarily intended to be "weaponized," as the military calls it. So, why do we bother?

Well, given that the recent dissolutions of the Warsaw Pact and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics have been accompanied by the re-emergence of regional conflicts together with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, I think it fair to say that peace is not yet at hand. We therefore need to maintain a reasonable capability to deter aggression. It has been argued elsewhere that deterrence is the last third of what it takes to make peace.[1] Here I would like to discuss the role of nuclear testing in maintaining that deterrence.

Making Trade-Offs

I consider the nuclear weapons program to be engaged in maintaining and improving the capability, reliability, safety, and security of the nuclear explosives packages in the United States nuclear weapons stockpile. Because these four objectives are incompatible, we must make compromises among them.

Capability is the ability of a nuclear explosive package in a weapon to carry out a mission designated by the Department of Defense, and may be specified in terms of many parameters, including the familiar "kilotons of equivalent explosive yield." Reliability refers to the confidence that the nuclear explosive package will indeed go off when properly triggered. Designed-in reliability is in conflict with safety, the confidence that the nuclear explosive package will not go off or release toxic substances unless it is properly triggered. Safety is related to security, the confidence that nobody but the authorized people can trigger the nuclear explosive package, or exploit it for the nuclear weapons grade materials it contains.

Clearly, the safest nuclear weapon is one which cannot explode under any circumstances. However, it is also the least capable and reliable. Conversely, the most reliable nuclear weapon is one that explodes easily, but nobody would want to handle it. Traditionally, we have designed for safety and security by making weapons that are difficult to explode, and we have confirmed that they are reliable and capable by nuclear weapons testing. This testing includes detonating versions of the explosives package deep underground during the design and development phases of a new weapon (which I’ll call "developmental" testing), underground detonations of sample weapons taken from the stockpile to confirm that they still work after their components have aged ("stockpile confidence" testing), and underground tests of developmental weapons and stockpile weapons to confirm that various safety features or methods of disablement work as intended ("safety testing").

Eventually, some components age to the extent that they must be replaced. This often occurs over a long enough time that manufacturing techniques, available materials, and acceptable safety (including environmental safety and health considerations in manufacturing) and security criteria may also have changed, making it impossible to replace the components, or to re-manufacture a previous design. In other words, we cannot "stay in place" with old weapons and stop designing new ones. There will always be such a "stockpile stewardship" role for a nuclear weapons design program as long as we rely on nuclear weapons as part of our national defense.

You might expect that we could make our design trade-offs using computer simulations. However, the biggest computers available today can be brought to their knees (as it were) by calculations that, by the standards of my lab, are relatively trivial. Consider that the physics in a nuclear device must be calculated for spatial and time scales ranging from those of bulk matter to individual atomic nuclei. Since this is (and probably always will be) impossible, our computer codes rely on approximations. Now, the validity of many of these approximations can only be determined experimentally, i.e., by testing. And some of that testing must be nuclear (our fourth and final category, "weapons physics" testing).

If it seems odd that we would like more data after forty-seven years of nuclear testing, remember that nuclear explosives create a local environment in which good data is difficult to get. Our measuring instruments need to collect their inputs, produce their signals, and get those signals up their cables to our recording shacks while the instruments are being vaporized, and the cables are being crushed. Thus, it is only recently that we have been able to field good enough instrumentation to answer some of our long-standing questions.

Moreover, in the days of the Cold War, developmental testing often edged out weapons physics testing, or relegated it to so-called "add-ons" — devices bolted on to the main test package that used some of its energy to drive physics experiments. This was especially true after atmospheric testing was banned for environmental and public health reasons. The underground tests which followed were much less frequent, because digging those deep holes is time-consuming and expensive. Now our leadership proposes to edge-out weapons physics testing again — this time with safety testing. I favor safety tests, but I think it only prudent to do the physics tests as well, so as to better maintain our ability to make design trade-offs during an extended (and possibly permanent) moratorium.

So, what will happen when we stop testing? Not much, at first. But eventually, it will become time to replace or retrofit an old warhead in the stockpile. An experienced designer, one who has done several tests, will have developed an intuition for how far he or she can trust the computer simulations. Based on that intuition, he or she will make the trade-offs among capability, reliability, safety, and security. But if only inexperienced designers are left (due to the retirements and deaths of the old guard), then the trade-offs will have to be weighted in favor of capability and reliability (which for many applications means bigger, cruder bombs). Safety and security will have to take a back seat. And that is provided the inexperienced designers even know where those trade-off points are and which directions to go from them.

On the other hand, some of my older colleagues who recall the test ban of the early 1960’s fear precisely the opposite situation from the prudence I described above. They fear that without the confrontation with reality provided by testing, the eventual retrofit of our stockpiled weapons will become a game of "Liar’s Poker," in which those with the greatest genius for self-promotion get their ideas included in the stockpile, and that those people may not necessarily be those with the soundest judgment.

If all this seems a little arcane, one of my colleagues puts it all in perspective with the following example: Imagine a shop full of young vocational school graduates who have studied auto mechanics, but who have never actually worked on a car. Perhaps you might let them tune up your car’s engine. But you’d feel a little nervous if they had to redo your car’s entire braking system because you won’t let them use asbestos brake pads anymore.[2]


Making Laws

As indicated above, nuclear explosives testing has been considered a necessary part of the nuclear weapons design program. However, in an attempt to limit nuclear proliferation and reduce international tension, our government has decided to limit further the number and explosive yields of US nuclear tests, and to place another moratorium (we had one in the early 1960’s) on such testing after 1996. [3]

To get more specific, the "Hatfield Amendment" requires that we stop testing for nine months, restart, do fifteen tests in three years, and then stop for good. The right idea, perhaps, but the wrong approach. A better approach would be for Congress and the White House to ask the National Laboratories, "How many tests do you need (a) to meet military requirements for safety-related retrofits to the remaining stockpiled weapons, (b) to establish confidence in the safety and reliability of the remaining stockpile, and (c) to benchmark key weapons physics parameters, before shelving the test program?" That would at least allow an orderly and sensible shutdown. It would allow us to put the nuclear weapons test program to sleep rather than to kill it.

It would still mean giving up something. The nuclear weapons program could include effort on new designs that achieve unprecedented safety, but whose reliability, capability, and shelf-life have yet to be established. Since an extended testing program would be required to certify such weapons for the stockpile, super-safe designs would not be pursued. Similarly, new designs that achieve unprecedented shelf-life would also be abandoned. Discontinuing the test program means that we must focus on understanding only the open questions regarding what is in the stockpile now, and discontinue new design efforts to improve safety and reliability. In other words, the trade-off for the Laboratory management, the government, and the American people can be put as a question: "Do you want a nuclear test ban sooner — with current levels of nuclear weapon safety and reliability frozen in, or later — with potentially higher levels of safety and reliability?" This of course raises the question, "Is the remaining stockpile going to be safe and reliable enough?"

Well, it probably is. We have gone forty-seven years without a disaster, and we have had very few dud tests. A real disaster would be for us to shut down without doing the weapons physics and stockpile confidence tests that we need to do, rather than just the tests we can do under current law. Our current law is simply an act of Congress, performed without consulting official representatives or nuclear weapons experts from the National Laboratories, the DOE, or the DOD, and signed by President Bush because it was attached to funding for the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) which would have provided jobs in Texas. Another case of common sense and national security taking a back seat to election year politics.[4]


Making Changes

The nuclear testing moratorium was foreshadowed by the National Defense Authorization Act of Fiscal Year 1989, which mandated a Nuclear Test Ban Readiness Program (NTBRP). In the event of a test ban, the NTBRP was intended (1) to assure that the United States remains able to detect and identify potential problems in stockpile reliability and safety in existing designs of nuclear weapons, (2) to assure that specific materials, components, processes, and personnel are available for the re-manufacture of existing nuclear weapons, or the substitution of alternative nuclear warheads, and (3) to maintain a vigorous research program in areas related to nuclear weapons science and engineering so that the United States maintains a base of technical knowledge about nuclear weapons design and effects. Meeting objectives (1) and (2) is primarily a problem in the management of technology. I would like to see us have a rational program of weapons physics tests, a period of calibration to emerging technologies, to insure that we can meet the third.

The emerging technologies I have in mind can function as "acceptable surrogates", not for development, confidence, or safety testing, but insofar as some aspects of weapons physics are concerned. They include laser fusion and advanced computing technology, among others.

Laser fusion targets have only one thing in common with thermonuclear explosives: they’re supposed to produce energy via thermonuclear fusion, the same process that powers the sun. The fusion part is scaled way down so that Inertial Confinement Fusion, or ICF as it is called, can be used in principle to generate electric power. The idea behind ICF is that multiple laser beams impinge on a little ball of thermonuclear "fuel" causing it to become hot and dense enough to undergo a bit of fusion before it disassembles. ICF offers one arena in which some nuclear weapons physics issues can be explored in the laboratory, rather than underground, provided that we benchmark the relevant weapons physics parameters with nuclear tests before we abandon the nuclear test program. Otherwise, we risk making the "vigorous research program" of the 1989 National Defense Authorization impossible to achieve.

Another part of the changeover to a test-free nuclear weapons program involves the kind of computer simulations that we use. Techniques in massively parallel computing, distributed computing, and scientific visualization are only now emerging. Since we hope that the refined predictive capability of new codes using these techniques will partially make up for the lack of nuclear weapons testing, maybe we should validate the new codes themselves with a few tests.

Finally, several emerging technologies, which I will decline to mention here, can help us to examine the effects of nuclear radiation on critical military and civilian systems even in the absence of nuclear testing. Once again, a bit of calibration may be in order.

Unless we make the change to a test-free nuclear weapons program carefully, the "vigorous research program" of the 1989 Defense Authorization may not be so vigorous. Now in a democracy like ours, the good people leave a program when they get bored. And whether or not you believe we should keep our nuclear weapons, surely it is not in the best interest of national security or nuclear safety to have them designed by second-raters.[5]

In any event, a "test-free" world is one in which only those nuclear tests are performed which have explosive yields below the seismic detectability threshold. If the United States stops nuclear testing altogether, the quality of its arsenal will gradually decline to a lower level of safety, security, reliability, and capability than we have today. The world will not necessarily become a safer place — it may only seem that way as proliferant nations play catch-up with tests camouflaged by ordinary seismic noise. Perhaps we might consider a regime in which a limited number of such sub-threshold tests is tolerated. These would of necessity be physics tests rather than weapons tests because of their limited yields, but such confrontations with reality would still serve to keep our nuclear design program and our capability to maintain our deterrent intact until it is genuinely no longer needed — for reasons pleasant or otherwise to contemplate.


  1. See "Obscenity and Peace," at this website.
  2. Hugh Gusterson has correctly identified fielding a nuclear test as an "initiation rite" for a new designer. (See his book, currently entitled Testing Times: A Nuclear Weapons Lab at the End of the Cold War, University of California Press, forthcoming.) However, many who read his analyses forget that every human institution has initiation rites, and that all human knowledge is cultural (i.e., "tribal"). In other words, nuclear designers are no more "tribal" than anyone else. Moreover, this particular rite has its roots in common sense — if you absolutely must count on something to work in a critical situation, you try to test it first. And if you must count on someone to do a job, you try to determine that they can — whether the job is fixing your car’s brakes or your country’s weaponry.
  3. A number of respected analysts, including David Kay, Secretary General of the Uranium Institute (London), believe that nuclear testing is of such great symbolic significance that the United States must stop if we are to have a credible voice in the effort to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons. Of course, other analysts disagree. I think that our refraining from nuclear weapons testing will have little effect on nuclear weapons proliferation directly. However, it may contribute to nuclear weapons gradually becoming less important in the daily affairs of the world — the "relativization of the nuclear question" as Brian Hehir put it recently — and that I regard as a good thing, for as long as it lasts.
  4. Now the Clinton administration continues to politicize nuclear weapons testing. It has instructed the National Laboratories to prepare to do one nuclear test in response to the recent (1993) test by the People’s Republic of China. Such an isolated test comes nowhere near constituting the well-thought-out nuclear test series that I would like to see before we continue an extended moratorium.
  5. It’s probably also in the national interest to keep nuclear design programs alive in some form at both Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. The programs could continue to act as critics of each other, avoiding mistakes that "groupthink" could foster, especially when such groupthink cannot be confronted by the reality of nuclear testing.

On Becoming a Christian

But Jesus said, Forbid him not; for there is no one who shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me. — Mark 9:39
I suppose I should confess that I joined a Defense Research Lab before I joined the Church. The order of things isn't all that important, since they came about nearly simultaneously. I went to church because we were new in town and my wife wanted to go.

I toyed with the idea of dropping her off at the door and picking her up when she was done. After eighteen years in the Bible Belt, I distrusted Christians, even though I had been raised as one. Still, I was searching for a "wholesome discipline." I had begun reading up on various religions, especially Zen Buddhism, while treading the mill in Corporate America, because I needed a source of inspiration to withstand the grind. Finally, I realized that I had gained as much as I could from studying about religion, and that to become transformed, to become whole, I would have to practice one. Christianity was the one whose symbols meant the most to me, but I had doubts about it. Christians seemed to me to be people who either used church to show off their best behavior and clothes, or to further their political agenda, or to show off to God how obedient they were by crucifying everyone but themselves and recruiting like mad. In short, I thought Christianity was a dead religion.

But I walked in with her, sat down, and was amazed. The man in the pulpit gave literate and thoughtful sermons, interpreting Christ's message with care, inspiration, and compassion. I began to respect the pastor as a thinker and a moralist. But what really convinced me that he was honest about his Christianity was that my wife and I surmised that he was gay. Not only was he a Christian in spite of what the church did to people like him, he was like Christ in that he was ministering to people who would, and eventually did, almost literally crucify him when they realized who he was. When he spoke the Word, I knew he meant it. (Those who would quote Scripture in an attempt to discredit him I answer with the former blind man's words to the Pharisees in John 9:30, "Why herein is a marvellous thing, that ye know not from whence he is, and yet he hath opened mine eyes.")

And that is how I began becoming a Christian. I also had help from some other special people. As part of my wholesome discipline, I took 50 hours of training to become a Stephen Minister (a lay pastoral caregiver or peer counselor). The people I ministered to helped me tremendously by allowing me to walk a little way along life's journey with them. Through my experiences helping them I gained a greater understanding of what it means to think of God as acting in the world (in spite of suffering) and of what prayer is about (and I gained a great respect for my pastor as a caregiver, teacher, and supervisor).

One of those special people was a young gay man with AIDS who had been ejected from his Fundamentalist congregation. For him, I was just barely "Christian enough" at first. On my part, I had to come to terms with a number of things in order to counsel him effectively: my antipathy toward Fundamentalism, my fear of AIDS, and my understanding of myself as a man. Straight men are usually uptight around gays because gays present an alternative variety of manhood, in the presence of which straight men realize that they never really looked into their own manhood. Fearful of what they might find, they avoid the questions by avoiding (if not picking on) the gays. I was no exception. So I had to get comfortable with myself as a straight man in order to affirm him as a gay man.

Which was part of the key to his survival. In order for his somatic (bodily) self to resist his disease, his psychological and spiritual self needed healing. He had to come to an understanding and acceptance of himself as a gay, Christian, man. I'm glad I was around to help, and to witness his transformation from a man on his deathbed (the doctors had given up on him, sending him home on pain medication to die) to a long term survivor.

So I get angry when I read about the "controversy" in various churches regarding ministry with gays and lesbians, gay or lesbian marriages, and ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. The controversy is caused by good and pious people who ask in tones of shock and disbelief, "Do you really believe homosexuality is acceptable to the Lord?" I want to ask in reply, "Do you really believe you are acceptable to the Lord?" If one of these folks answers "No, not really," then we have an opportunity for some serious ministry. And if he or she answers "Yes," I would challenge, "Then love others as God loves you." Those I have met who walk in God's Love as an ongoing experience respond with love, even for those defined by human society to be unlovable. Because they experience acceptance of themselves, they hardly question it regarding others.

For many others, who I think doubt their acceptance, homosexuality is a purity or cleanliness issue. This is ironic, because all present day Christians would have been considered unclean by the earliest Christians. According to the Bible, it took Divine Intervention (Peter's vision in Acts 10:10-28) to get Peter or any of the first Christian community (who were all Jews) to enter the house of a Gentile (a non-Jew, all of whom were considered unclean), and even then he did it cautiously, taking witnesses with him so that he could explain himself to the folks back home. In other words, people who have themselves had special dispensation to be considered clean enough to enter the Church give thanks for it by calling someone else unclean. It's like joining a fraternity only to have contempt for the new pledges.

And so I watch my Church make war against itself over the "homosexuality question." To steal a phrase from Dr. King, somewhere I read, "Blessed are the peacemakers." Which is peacemaking — to affirm all God's people, or to deny part? Which promotes unity — to deny the witness of the minority, or to affirm the witness of all? When Jesus fed the five thousand, I doubt that he checked for affectional orientation or recent genital activity. If the loaves and fish can be taken as a metaphor for God's Love, we seem to be anxiously counting our portion rather than giving generously to the multitude. We might do well to remember (Mark 4:25), "For he that hath, more shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath." Perhaps acknowledging the Word from whomever speaks it, and affirming the committed relationship of whoever loves each other are ways we are called to share what we are given. Perhaps more shall be added to us when we do.

See also Lutherans Concerned North America's Reconciling in Christ program.

05 November 1991

Teach Your Children

How to Think about Dangerous, Complicated Things

In the sixties and seventies there was a general shift away from dedicated instruction in the natural sciences and deductive reasoning in the US public schools. This shift produced a social climate in which personal introspection was performed in the absence of coherent thought. Now vast numbers of the voting public become hysterical when life withholds any guarantee of immortality. The learned leaders of our country have heard their cries. Ergo, it is the job of the reasoning few to generate this impossible guarantee using guidance from a technically naive bureaucracy or face the wrath of a dying mob. — Scott Carman, 1991

Denial of Danger

Rems, rads, grays, and sieverts. We learned about them at the Radiation Worker's Safety Briefing, which was required for those of us who were going to attend a nuclear "device assembly" at the Nevada Test Site. We also learned, during a break, about the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island.

Apparently the amount of radioactive material that escaped the containment vessel was so tiny that a spokesperson for Consolidated Edison stated that the long-term cancer risk from the average radiation dose received in the surrounding community was smaller than that due to the aflatoxins an average child ingests while eating peanut butter. This caused the spokesperson to make it into the trade-lore of how not to engage in "risk communication." He or she was beaten nearly to death by the homemakers in the audience, who were furious at having their cuisine compared to a nuclear meltdown.

But the spokesperson had a point. We can only compare one danger to another danger, because there is no absolute standard for safety, because life itself is dangerous - sooner or later, no matter what we do, we all die. So, to evaluate an unfamiliar danger, we must compare it to a familiar danger, one to which we expose ourselves every day.[1]

This is difficult because we tend to ignore our daily dangers. Who would think that you were exposing your child to tiny amounts of a potent, natural liver-carcinogen from trace quantities of a mold that grows on peanuts? But don't toss that peanut butter - you're more likely to shorten your child's lifespan by driving your child in a car. Now, you could also keep your child away from cars, but in our society driving is often a necessity - even though you're more likely to die in an automobile accident than on some battlefields.

On the other hand, ignoring dangers that we can do nothing about helps us to go about our business in spite of them. We even say that those of us who can't ignore the usual dangers of daily life have phobias. Still, there was a time, before anesthesia and antibiotics, when we all knew life was dangerous, and we appealed to God to grant us safety as a blessing. Now we look to our government to grant us safety as a right.

Protecting our right to safety is taken to extremes by our courts, which have abandoned the concepts of contributory negligence and comparative causation. For example, suppose you climbed the shelves of your local grocery store, and fell, injuring your spine. Suppose further that you were 90% responsible for your own injury, that the store was 9% responsible, and that the manufacturer of the canned soup that fell on you was 1% responsible. You could still sue the soup manufacturer for the full amount of your monetary damages (hospital bills, lost salary, etc.) and win, because of all parties to the action, only the soup-maker had enough money. That is to say, we insist that we be protected from the financial consequences of our own stupidity by robbing whoever has the deepest pockets (which is like killing the goose that laid the golden egg, because the deepest pockets usually belong to the companies that provide our jobs).

And in order to aid this robbery we suppress evidence. Consider the case of a man who was injured at work when he fell off a chair. Since his workmen's compensation didn't begin to cover expenses, he sued the chair manufacturer. The manufacturer's lawyer hired an engineer to prepare a video in which the chair was measured to pass all applicable OSHA safety standards. The judge, however, ruled the evidence, and indeed, the standards themselves inadmissible in court. This left the engineer able to state opinions substantiated only by his reputation. It also left the injured worker's lawyer plenty of room to play, since the engineer was in the manufacturer's pay, and anybody's word can seem doubtful if you can't check the facts.

Now the judge excluded the engineer's measurements because (1) such evidence is thought too technical for most jurors to understand, and (2) if, God forbid, an engineer or a scientist had been impaneled, he or she would have formed a strong opinion, which neither attorney could manipulate. Such an opinionated expert could possibly sway the other jurors - the "one-man jury" effect. But the technology at issue here is a chair. The performance of the chair relative to the standards was measured by pulling on it with hand-held spring scales until it tipped over. If that level of technology is too sophisticated for the average person to understand, then civilization is about to collapse because it is too complicated. Or more precisely, because the average person is no longer thought to be prepared, emotionally or intellectually, to deal with complexity. In other words, the judge thought it better for the jury do deal with digestible lies, rather than the complicated truth.[2]

Working backward through our examples, then, it may not be stretching things too far to say that we as a society sometimes lie, steal, and kill, in order to protect our illusion of safety from the consequences of our own actions, or from complicated or uncomfortable truths. Besides making money for trial lawyers, such transformation of reality from the awful truth into a consensus comfortable to the greatest number is itself dangerous. After all, if an entire populace seeks safety in suppressing the truth, can we expect better of its press or government?

Danger for Profit

Of course, a little danger, presented the right way, can be titillating. Just ask any journalist what makes good copy. Especially if it has to do with a powerful technology like nuclear weapons.

Because the press finds that places like nuclear weapons labs tend to "stonewall" them, they sometimes print speculation as if it were fact in order to flush the actual story from reluctant sources. This often works, but when the actual details make dull reading, they wind up on the back page, if not on the editing room floor.

That's why lab officials fear encounters with the press more than they do encounters with hostile intelligence services. After all, you win if a spy comes away with a false impression, because a spy is after the truth. But you lose if a journalist comes away with a false impression, because a journalist is after a story.[3] Besides, you only have to keep a spy from reading your mind, whereas, with a journalist, you practically have to read theirs, before you can answer their questions.

Typically, a journalist may be working on several stories at once, and asking questions relating to all of them. Unless the journalist tells me what is on his or her mind, regarding any particular question, I may misjudge the context. This creates a problem because language is by its nature ambiguous, and thus has meaning only in context. Or, as I have said elsewhere, there is no truth that can be so clearly spoken that it cannot be willfully misunderstood. Since journalists prefer to do interviews, rather than to be interviewed themselves, their use of material from interviews can be strongly influenced by the way they want their story to read, which is in turn influenced by what their editors think will sell.

In other words, General Sherman was wrong in comparing journalists with spies - journalists can be more difficult. All this was summed up in one word by my father-in-law. When my wife was a little girl, she asked him if what was in the news was really true. At first he was silent. He was a German who had grown up in Russia under the Tsar, and who had witnessed the Revolution of 1917. After a while, he said, "Sometimes."

Courage to Think

We the people delude ourselves regarding danger, either by denial or morbid fascination, and are aided in both by our press. We need more than an arsenal of factual knowledge to break out of this delusion. We need what I call the moral value of science education.

This moral value is twofold. First, science is a confrontation of the self, individual and collective, with those aspects of reality that can be measured - the observable facts. The willingness to face such facts, whether they are palatable or not, is on a level with the morality of golf. It is "playing the ball where it lies," which is fairly exhalted compared to the examples in the first part of this essay. And behind this willingness lies another moral value, courage. The courage to endure making the effort required for understanding, and the possible embarrassment, disappointment, or worse that may await if the facts turn out to be other than one supposed. I call it the courage to think.

The courage to think is becoming increasingly important because we continue to invent and use ever more powerful technologies to meet the dangers of the present, which in turn helps create the dangers of the future. Consider antibiotics, for example. They protected us from dying in large numbers from infectious diseases, allowing us the illusion of safety as we became more sexually promiscuous. This created, to twist a line from Guys and Dolls, the oldest established permanent floating culture medium in the world. It was an ecological niche that, sooner or later, some organism was bound to exploit. In other words, AIDS wasn't brought to us by gay men - the most careless and unlucky of them simply wound up being the first to give their lives to show the rest of us what was waiting for us all.

Nowadays everyone knows someone who is alive because of antibiotics. The idea of giving them up, and going back to a more innocent age when everyone knew someone who died young of infectious disease, is idiotic. But it takes the courage to think to use them wisely. Otherwise we make it easier for drug resistant bacteria to evolve, by our doing everything from abusing antibiotics in agriculture to forgetting to take all of our medicine when we start feeling better. (Which is how drug resistant TB developed when we began treating the disease on an out-patient basis.)

So much for the comfortable and familiar technologies. How about some serious genetic engineering to prevent or cure AIDS or cancer? How about eradicating heart disease, or slowing the aging process? All this sounds good, but the technologies that could make these advances possible could perhaps also cause some very devastating accidents, or could perhaps be used for some very destructive biological warfare. All this means that each good we desire from technology will make another demand on our courage to think.

Well, no guts, no glory. That's what they teach athletes in our public schools. But what they teach in our science classes must be the intellectual equivalent of unsalted cream of rice.

At least that was the impression I had when I gave a guest lecture on black holes to a classroom of eighth graders. I tried to follow the rules: I brought pictures illustrating the key concepts, I used the students themselves in concept demonstrations, I used body movement (I had the students turn around and point their fingers in all directions to illustrate spherical symmetry), and I used absolutely no equations. But I totally lost them when I did the one thing for which I could find no substitute - I drew a graph. Not even a real graph, just a schematic, with space on the horizontal axis and time on the vertical, just to show how space and time interchange for you if you fall into the black hole, preventing you from getting out.

Now maybe I'm too demanding, but graphs are very simple, yet powerful tools for communicating ideas. Even President Reagan used one once. Graphs appeal to our visual sense, which is normally our strongest. Teaching science as a set of disconnected facts, without teaching how to use basic tools of thought like graphs, teaches very little. This is because science, like history, is more than a collection of facts. It is a set of tools of thought, and as I have tried to argue above, a set of attitudes toward truth and complexity.

The attitudes and tools are of course meaningless without the facts, but the facts themselves are also meaningless without the attitudes and tools. Or as some have put it, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." The problem is that by teaching the collection of facts without the tools and attitudes to deal with them, that sufficiently advanced technology is our own. Thus, before we try to empower the people to make complex choices - to "enlarge the realm of the political" by "eliminating the cult of the expert" as some liberals put it - we need to use science education to enlarge the realm of the comprehensible.

Thought and Language

As you might imagine, I'd like to see a bit more emphasis on teaching science and math in our public schools. I'd also like to see successful completion of freshman calculus made a requirement for graduation from all four-year colleges. Simply put, I believe that unless you can master calculus, you can in no way claim that you have had a well-rounded education, which is what a Bachelor's degree is all about.

Now I know that most people won't ever use calculus in their daily lives. I didn't use it for the five years I worked at one of the nation's leading industrial laboratories. Nevertheless, calculus underlies statistics, which is behind "fault trees," which is the analytical tool we use to deal rationally with "low-probability, high consequence" events like reactor accidents, and to make "cost-benefit analyses." Calculus lies behind the tools and attitudes more of us need to deal with the daily dangers of our complex culture.[4]

Moreover, the ideas behind calculus - the idea of a continuous function or process, the notion of how a function or process behaves as certain limits are approached, the resolution of a complex process into simpler parts, the idea of infinity, the idea of logical proof, etc. - underlie much of what has become known as the modern world view. Learning calculus therefore is part of preserving and appreciating the valuable legacy left to all of us by all those dead white men. Neglecting it is like throwing away part of an inheritance.

Another reason to learn calculus is that it is a very precise language. So precise, that if you follow its grammatical rules, you will always speak the truth within its limited scope. Such a brush with both precision and truth can give the average college student a better appreciation of the limits of human knowledge. Calculus as a language is also richer than the algebra many of us sweat through in high school - rich enough to make some coherent sense, so that one can begin to glimpse the entire structure of mathematics as a whole. Which is no small thing, because mathematics underlies all of our science and technology, which themselves underlie our present culture.

Of course, an emphasis on mathematical language in no way substitutes for a knowledge of natural language. I'm thinking here of bi-lingual education, which I'd like to stand on its head. I think it criminal to teach classes in anything but English to immigrants to America under the age of twelve. Sure English as a foreign language is a must, but face it, children under the age of twelve can learn to speak any language much more easily than anybody else. Why cheat them of the opportunity to have more than one native language? Especially if one of those languages is the one spoken by those who have all the money and power in their new country!

On the other hand, it might help cure our ludicrous parochialism if all our little native-English speakers had to learn the foreign language most predominant in their community in order to get past sixth grade. Such a requirement would help us understand each other in our "multicultural" society, it would certainly help all the older folks who are going to have a tough time with English for the rest of their lives, and it would provide employees who could really help our businesses compete in the global economy, because they could speak its languages.

And yes, I meant the word parochialism. People in most cultures tend to think their way is the only way to understand the world. But the same events can mean different things to people who are native speakers of different languages. Relatively few Americans appreciate this, especially the ones who make claims for a literal interpretation of Judeo-Christian Scripture (which was written in Hebrew and Greek) based on their reading of English.

I also meant ludicrous - like the time President Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner," which translates to "I am a jelly doughnut." To have said, "I am a Berliner," he needed to leave out the ein. Fortunately, the Berliners all knew what he meant.

In any event, to get anything at all taught in public schools, we need to do one very big thing. We need to reprofessionalize teachers.[5] This means requiring that teachers learn content as well as methodology - what to teach as well as how - by earning graduate degrees in standard academic subjects. It means letting teachers choose the textbooks and develop the curricula. It means measuring their performance by testing their students. It means raising the status, expectations, freedoms, responsibilities, and rewards of public schoolteachers to those of college professors. Until then, all the demands placed on teachers by parents, educationists, and government are just one big ball-and-chain fastened on to teachers by a society that isn't serious about education.


  1. Greg Simonson informs me that Dixie Lee Ray expressed a similar thought many years ago.
  2. My friend Charles Perry informs me that our tort (civil suit) system is actually much worse that I describe here. See for example, Peter W. Huber's Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom, Harper-Collins, New York, 1991.
  3. Moreover, even the most innocuous and factual statement on the part of a lab manager or employee can be met with vehement accusations from parts of Congress and the public. Since such accusations make good copy, journalists may be reluctant to print the qualifying statements on the part of the lab employee that might mitigate such firestorms. Given this, most of us simply prefer to keep our heads down.
  4. For example, I met a political science professor who thought that nuclear testing was done purely for political reasons (a case of a man casting his cosmology into a mold that fit his chosen discipline). That the errors inherent in modeling differential equations by finite difference equations introduce errors into nuclear weapons design codes, which must be investigated by testing never occurred to him, because he never had calculus. While nuclear testing has been politicized by our society, testing has always had a scientific and engineering purpose -- now, however, there are good geopolitical reasons to cease testing.
  5. Perhaps most people would say we need to get a handle on violence in our schools first. However, educators who think to disarm schools full of gun-toting kids with psychobabble rather than metal detectors are muddle-headed rather than professional, in my book. I might suggest William Golding's Lord of the Flies as part of their continuing education. Its conclusion is a lesson in the civilizing effect on children of the constructive use of power.

Science and Faith

Working together in the cause of Truth

Religion has been compelled by science to give up one after another of its dogmas...In the meantime, science substituted for the personalities to which religion ascribed phenomena...and in doing this it trespassed on the province of religion; since it classed among the things which it comprehended certain forms of the incomprehensible. - Herbert Spencer, First Principles, 1862
 The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. - Albert Einstein, speech at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939

Trust versus Doubt

"How can you possibly believe in God?" asked an incredulous psychiatrist, when I mentioned that I had been doing a kind of "peer counseling" through a program sponsored by my church.

"We physicists are a positivist lot," I replied, echoing a thought my wife had a few days earlier. "We tend to trust what we experience. For psychiatrists, it's more difficult, because one's own perceptions become a subject for analysis." He changed the subject abruptly, but after a while he began to remark on the beauty of the sea outside the window, and how his perception of that beauty could not be the product of natural selection, because it had no evolutionary survival value whatever. I shrugged my shoulders. "Maybe it's a gift," I said.

Behind his question lay a world view, popularly thought to be the scientific world view, that faith is unnecessary-that all of reality is in principle knowable by logic and experiment. From the Enlightenment until the 1930s it was a world view that seemed justified. Then Kurt Gödel proved and published a theorem which stated, in effect, that within the framework of any self-consistent (non-contradictory) non-trivial set of axioms (logical rules assumed to be true) it is possible to state propositions whose truth or falsehood is undecidable in principle. In other words, there will always be truths which cannot be proved or deduced, even within the confines of the mathematics, the "Queen of the Sciences."

Now this theorem applies to the science generally, because science seeks to explain the world by means of a collection of self-consistent theories, which are subject to possible disproof by experiments. Any self-consistent theory can be axiomatized, which means that it is subject to Gödel's Theorem. Any inconsistent theory is unsatisfying to scientists (even though it may be quite useful), because experience has shown us that inconsistencies usually indicate regimes in which the theory breaks down. Such theories are eventually replaced by more consistent ones, and we are back at Gödel's Theorem. Thus, the idea that we can necessarily "know it all" through the scientific method is dead, and has been dead for the better part of a century.

As a scientist, I'm glad of it - it frees me from the need to try to know it all. I can enjoy science as the investigation and contemplation of the material universe - a vast thing, more intricate, surprising, generous, beautiful, and terrifying than we could possibly imagine without looking deeply into it. But the Theorem begs the question, "What can we know and how can we know it?"

What scientists can know starts with Decartes', "I think, therefore I am." The problem is that no amount of logic will get me from "I am" to "you are, too." If I entertain Decartes' radical doubt, then with my logic I can at best conclude that everyone and everything in the universe is a figment of my imagination. I need something more. Decartes turned to God. I need at least to trust myself and my perceptions - I need to trust that you and the world are really there. This attitude of basic trust in oneself and one's surroundings is at the core of all scientific knowledge. It is a leap of faith more naive and childlike than practiced by many religionists. It is the leap of faith we all take in order to become human. Every baby is a natural scientist in this sense - exploring, trying things out, seeing what works, discovering its power to grasp, finding its toes, trusting it's all real. I call the leap naive positivism.

Now in addition to the basic trust or faith of naive positivism, science embraces doubt. Acting alone, I cannot do science, because I may deceive myself. I must share my discovery with a community of scientists, any of whom can repeat my discovery, and so confirm it. And if they cannot repeat it, then maybe I was wrong. With their help I can search for the cause of my error, or of theirs.

This communal aspect of science is similar to the communal aspect of faith. I experience something, I talk about that experience with members of a community of faith, and they share their insights concerning it - its meaning, its possible validity, whether or not they've experienced similar things, and so on. And just as science has standards and criteria for the validity of an observation, most religions have standards, too - their dogmas and their myths, and the wisdom of their sages. These things are used to give names to (and thus to communicate about) experiences of the ineffable. Thus, (ideally) both science and religion embrace doubt[1], and attempt to deal with it by sharing experiences within a community. This sharing is itself based on belief that perceptions that can be shared are real.

Now not all perceptions can be shared. You can't share your perception of cinematography with a congenitally blind person, for example. Nevertheless, many people make the assumption that all individual, unshareable perceptions are unreal or imaginary. This is a kind of faith which I call naive negativism. A related expression of naive negativism is the belief that what can't be repeated is necessarily imaginary, a belief often held by scientists despite the observable time-irreversible evolution of our universe - strictly speaking, no event is repeatable. Naive negativism is based on a mis-placed trust (an idolatrous faith) in our ability to share and repeat all our experiences.

The critical difference between science and religion is one of technique and subject matter. Science is the discipline whereby we can discover the workings of whatever can be subjected to measurement at our will. It is based on faith in the reality of the physical world, and its techniques are logic, mathematics, experiment, and observation.

Religion (ideally speaking) is the discipline whereby we seek to explore our experiences of the Divine, and is based on faith in the Divine. (Some may prefer to call these experiences "psychological" rather than "spiritual," but I consider the two terms to mean the same thing, operationally.) The techniques are individual and/or communal prayer (including meditation and contemplation), myth (including writings and dogma), ritual (including silence, music, dance, and art), and, ideally, common sense.

Now I have heard many definitions of God, but "that which can be subjected to measurement at our will," is not among them. Nevertheless, science can speak to faith: If you distrust your senses and the physical world around you, I'm inclined to question your faith in anything else. In fact, I'm inclined to think that you may be abusing your faith to escape or deny something about reality that you dislike. And if your faith comes into conflict with physical reality, I'm inclined to think that you are straying from the path of awareness of the Divine, and becoming more concerned with your dogma. It is a signal that your faith may be idolatrous, as I think Creationism is.

Moreover, science, like a normally ordered life, is based on the acknowledgment of causality (the law of cause and effect) as it is called in Western philosophy, karma as it is known to Buddhists. Science is all about causality - if I do thus to this kind of system, it will react in such a way, even if the relationship between cause and effect is only statistical. Thus, science can speak to us and our spirituality, because the law of cause and effect is something we all struggle with in our daily lives. If we could (or would) know the consequences of our actions, we could, within the limits of physical reality, make choices that are truly free. Samsara (the world) is Nirvana - if we were willing to learn from the school of hard knocks, we would all be Enlightened.

On the other hand, faith can also speak to science: If you deny what you perceive because you cannot measure it, you blind yourself to reality by placing an idolatrous faith in your own power to measure. I'm thinking for example of experimental psychologists who deny the reality of "personality" in themselves, other people, and animals.

This is particularly ludicrous because experimental psychologists, themselves, know that the content of a creature's awareness is determined by its "umwelt," a German word meaning its perceptual "surrounding world." Scientists need to remember that our techniques of measurement are merely extensions of our five external physical senses - they do not necessarily transform those senses. In other words, if we are overlooking something, new measuring devices may only help us overlook it more carefully[2]. The attitude that "What can't be measured doesn't exist," is not only idolatrous (in that it is a mis-placed faith in our power to measure), it is unscientific.

To press the point further, the logical contrapositive (equivalent negative re-statement) of the naive positivist, "If I can measure it, it exists," is, "If it does not exist, I cannot measure it." These statements are to me self-evident. The naive negativist assertion, "If I cannot measure it, it does not exist," is the logical equivalent of, "If it exists, I can measure it," a manifestly arrogant and possibly false statement.

Now philosophers fused naive positivism and naive negativism together into so-called "logical positivism," the idea that anything that is measurable is real, and anything immeasurable is imaginary. Logical positivism is commonly mistaken to be the philosophical underpinning of scientific thought, but is itself only half true.

Shapes of Awareness

Consider the Venn diagram (Figure 1) of our relationship to our Universe. In Venn diagrams, an enclosed shape represents a set of things with a common characteristic. Naturally, the biggest, all-enclosing set in the diagram is the Universe itself. The set of all things in the Universe that we are aware of is our Umwelt. Anything in the Universe that is outside our Umwelt is outside our awareness, and some of it may even be unknowable in principle. Now it is meaningless to ascribe reality or fantasy to what we aren't even aware of, so the Real and the Imaginary are part of our Umwelt, rather than of the Universe at large. (These are basic categories - every child must at some point decide whether newspaper stories are Real or Make-Believe.) As discussed above, the Measurable is completely contained inside the Real. Now whatever is outside the Measurable is not-Measurable - that is, Immeasurable - and whatever is outside the Real and the Imaginary is neither Real nor Imaginary - it is Undecidable), either because of our limited knowledge, or in principle a' la Gödel's Theorem.

Figure 1. A Venn Diagram of our relationship to our Universe. Notice that everything that is measurable is real. Everything else in the diagram is immeasurable, and thus outside the purview of science. Our Umwelt is all that we are aware of, which is much less than everything in the Universe. Those things that we are aware of, yet are neither in the Real nor in the Imaginary, are Undecidable (or at least Undecided).

Now, as long as we're considering our Umwelt, I'd like to bring in an image from theology (Figure 2). Imagine the material universe of space and time to be a flat horizontal sheet, with time running from left to right. Perhaps the "spiritual," or the "eternal" can be considered as a vertical sheet, which intersects the horizontal, material universe in the "now." We humans spend a lot of time and effort to make sense of our perceptions by comparing them with those of our past, and our expectations of our future. We work very hard to live in both past and future, so that our attention is drawn away from the present, the now. (The intersection of the "Spiritual" and the "Material" may be like an infinitesimally thin line, barely noticeable, but if we would look up we could see forever.) Indeed, there is a time delay of a fraction of a second between an event and our seeing that event consciously - that's why drivers have a finite "reaction time" and why subliminal messages can be incorporated into movies - we are even biologically built to be a little behind the now.[3] Small wonder that wonder itself is so small a part of our Umwelt.

Figure 2. A diagram illustrating the idea that the "spiritual" or "numinous" may intersect the world in the now, which may constitute a tiny (infinitesimal) portion of our awareness or umwelt.

If all this logic and set diagramming is opaque to you, consider the neutrino, a subatomic particle. If scientists had failed to find evidence of it in their experiments, they would not have proved that it didn't exist - rather, that it was other than described by the theory - that the neutrino must be different from what they had expected. (By the way, Pauli's "little neutral one" was found.)

Thus, naive negativism is not equivalent to the naive positivism upon which both science and faith rest. "There is no god," is said by people who really mean that they stopped seeking the god they expected - it begs the question of the God who comes as a surprise. And "Science will lead you astray," is said by religious people who fear loss of their expectations, because they don't want to be surprised.

But as our understanding grows surprises (like earth's roundness and human evolution) come. The universe - it's a gift.

Through a Glass Darkly

Naive positivism serves us well as a point of departure for science, faith, and daily living - at least for those of us who consider ourselves to be mentally well. But what if I have reason to believe that my map of reality is distorted? Even mere affective disorders like depression (as opposed to cognitive disorders like schizophrenia) can, as a close friend put it, "suck the meaning of life completely out of you." I offer the following thoughts.

So-called crazy people may be both out-of-touch and in-touch with reality at the same time. That is, while they have maps of the universe in which their categories of "Real" and "Imaginary" are demonstrably (measurably) distorted, information from the Universe does flow into their awareness. The noticeable distortions in their awareness (including their awareness of God) serve to express their inner world - a world which most of us conceal more successfully, even from ourselves. Entering their inner world risks disturbing my own, but it can also stretch the boundaries of my awareness. My point is that the mentally and emotionally challenged do have cognitive and spiritual resources, although they may be more basic than those the rest of us prefer to use.

On the other hand, I think that we all share certain basic alienations or estrangements - from ourselves, each other, the natural world, and God.[4] The collective, normative world view which we construct and socialize each other to adopt may itself be one of Delusion, ignorance, or (if you prefer a Western term that has been loaded with unfortunate connotations of shame) Sin. A Buddhist might say that we participate in a collective insanity, and that one must become Enlightened to break free of it. If this seems far-fetched, consider that (1) we pay and prepare teachers poorly compared to, say, lawyers, and (2) so much of what we painstakingly mine out of the earth we put back in landfills. Seems crazy to me.

If we encounter distortions in our everyday experiences, we can expect to encounter them in our spiritual experiences as well. An example are the makyo or hallucinations Japanese Zen Buddhist students sometimes experience during the intense concentration of meditation.[5] Zen masters recognize these makyo from the descriptions and behavior of their students, and help the students to direct their attention toward reality.

Usually an admonition from a master is enough for the student, but anyone under stress can have makyo, and sometimes to correct it one must resort to experiment. There is an old story of a widower who began seeing his dead wife's ghost after he had become engaged to marry again.[6] "She knows more about me than I know myself," the frightened man said to a Zen master. "Really?" said the master. "Place a bowl of dried beans where you sleep. The next time she appears, grab a handful of beans as quickly as you can, and ask her to tell you how many beans are in your hand." The man did this, and when he questioned the ghost, she disappeared forever. He had experimentally shown that she knew only what he knew - that she was a figment of his imagination.

Now this ability to test reality by experiment is impaired in mentally ill people. Others may sometimes choose to forget they have the ability when they fear that reality may be too challenging. For example, when people worship an idea of God that precludes God from, say, evolving humans from ape-like ancestors, they are more in love with their particular idea of God, than they are with God - they are in a state of idolatrous faith. Were they a little more open to physical reality, they might be a little more open to spiritual reality as well.

In addition to the possibility of hallucinations or makyo, our perception of spiritual reality may be distorted by perceptual threshold phenomena - in which we unconsciously fill in the details of that which we can barely perceive. There is the example of "N-rays" in which a scientist trying to detect faint flashes of light from a supposedly radioactive source was actually seeing normal random activity in his own optic nerves. This makes us doubt that "still, small voice" with good reason.

Moreover, even distinct perceptions of phenomena can be in error - as attorneys and psychologists know, eyewitnesses can make mistakes. On this basis we doubt not only what we perceive, we doubt the reports of others as well. This is particularly true when the witnesses attempt to describe what is beyond their power to describe - like the descriptions that aboriginal peoples might give to their peers of their first experience of riding in a truck, or an airplane.[7]

Since our perceptions are subject to hallucination, threshold phenomena, distortion due to our inexperience or inadequate language, and other error, I advocate participation in both science and faith. Science, with its disciplined testing of reality and its grace to doubt, helps us to be honest, and can sometimes serve to warn us if we begin to engage in idolatry. More than that, it leads us to deeper understanding and appreciation of material reality, which in turn can point us further into faith. Faith, with its emphasis on participation in the Divine, gives us the courage, motivation, and power to be. Without at least some faith - the faith that this day will somehow be worth surviving - we couldn't even get up in the morning, much less do science.

Now Scientology and the New Age Movement claim to do precisely this harmonizing of science and faith. Neither of these movements is at all scientific (they embrace the language of science, but not its reality testing), and both of them are deeply idolatrous. (There is even a New Age church I know of that attracts schizophrenics because its version of reality is more in synch with theirs.) They have arisen because many people's need for faith has been denied by a Christianity which has itself become idolatrous - selling out the Good News in exchange for the class values of whoever makes up the majority of the congregation or controls the appointment of clergy. Rather than believe the lies Christians tell, Scientologists and New Agers make up a few of their own.

A Short Course in Miracles

"Do you really believe in miracles?"

"What do you mean by 'miracles'? It seems you're driving around with four of them in the back seat," I said, referring to her children.

"You know, the plagues, Moses parting the Red Sea, the pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, that stuff."

I think people put too much emphasis on miracles, and ignore the miraculous in everyday life. The miracles of beauty and love, or life itself. The miracles in the most mundane aspects of our existence. For example, for most people, most of the time, it feels good to breathe. Now you would breathe even if it felt bad, because you have to. That it feels good is miraculous. I could say as much about other bodily functions, including sex. It would be perfectly rational (from the action of unguided natural selection) for the sex urge to come over us like a strange compulsion, without any association with feelings of pleasure.

That said, what about those wild miracles - the breaking in of the Divine to alter our ordinary collective reality contrary to our expectations? As for the miracles of the past - all I can say is the accounts in the various sacred writings are how our cultures remember the events described. Their truth is the truth of faith, more than the truth of history, or science. In other words, the accounts survive because what they mean is true for us. I need more information to comment on the details.

I think it entirely possible that miracles did, do, and will occur. As I said earlier, the methods of science work very well - when applied to measurable, repeatable phenomena. However, I need faith too much to let it depend on miracles, especially since most purported miracles are the product of hoax, wishfulness, or careless thinking.[8] In fact, the wish that miracles occur comes from the same desire as the wish that they don't - we want our Universe to be what we need in order to feel secure, rather than what it is.

But there is one miracle I am waiting for, the personal miracle hinted at in some people's "near death" experiences, and in the "visions" experienced by dying people I have known. The miracle promised by all our major religions, and in its most radical way by Christianity. There's little point in arguing about it now - if it happens, we can talk about it later.

Getting Even

With all this preamble, it's time for science and faith to settle a few old scores. Long ago we had Divine Providence - the idea that an "Invisible Hand" guides our destinies. This mutated into the "Free Market" of Capitalism, the "Dialectical Materialism" of Communism, and the Clockwork Universe of scientific determinism. About the first two I'll say more later. Determinism is in for it here.

Determinism is based on the notion that if we could know the positions and velocities of every particle in the Universe (and there seems to be a large, but finite number) we could, in principle, calculate the entire future evolution of the Universe. This idea was born from the structure of Newton's equations of motion and held sway for over 200 years, until the 1920's. Then we found out that very small particles begin to exhibit behavior that is masked by the sheer size of large ones. It turns out that the process of precisely measuring a particle's position destroys information about its velocity, and vice versa. That is to say, measuring exactly where a particle is gives it such a whack that we can no longer know where it's going, and measuring exactly where it's going can only be done via interactions that "smear out" where it is. That the position and velocity of a particle cannot simultaneously take on precise values is a statement of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, and seems to be a fundamental limitation on the measurability of reality.

If the Uncertainty Principle struck Determinism a mortal blow in the 1920s, nonlinear dynamics delivered the coup de grace in the 1980s. The nonlinear dynamicists finally had the desperation, the courage, and the methods to tackle some of the really hard problems of Classical Mechanics (the branch of physics that deals with the motion of ordinary sized things and is described by Newton's equations). They found that even for relatively simple systems, like three bodies moving under mutual gravitational attraction, the future motion can depend so sensitively on the given conditions at any moment (positions and velocities) that the detailed motion of the system is unpredictable (or chaotic) - not only because classical measurements are only finitely precise, but because of the limitations imposed by the Uncertainty Principle as well. In other words, the Universe is not nearly as well-behaved as a wind-up clock. The Universe is not a machine or a mechanism, as we understand machines and mechanisms. Determinism is dying.

What's replacing determinism is still emerging out of the mess of attempts to unify theoretical understandings of gravitation, the strong nuclear interaction, and the weak nuclear and electromagnetic interactions, and the infant discipline of artificial intelligence. The next century promises to be a real humdinger in that regard. We may even discover that much of our own sub-conscious thinking is non-deterministic, in that many of the problems we (and "lower animals") solve without thinking simply to perceive and act in our environment are "np-complete," that is impossible to solve (in a useful time) via strictly deterministic sequential algorithms (recipes). Indeed, Roger Penrose [9] argues rather convincingly that no Turing machine (an idealized "standard" computing device that follows algorithms) can replicate conscious subjective experience and insight.

I would like to argue a different and perhaps complementary point, based on the Uncertainty Principle of Quantum Mechanics. One result of the Uncertainty Principle is that nothing can stand precisely still, for then its position would be precisely x, and its velocity precisely zero. Since the Uncertainty Principle states that both quantities cannot take on precise values at the same time, standing precisely still is impossible. Every particle exhibits a little back-and-forth random motion, even at zero average energy. These motions are called zero-point oscillations. Fields like electromagnetism have zero-point oscillations, too. These have been measured via their effect on the energy levels of electrons bound in atoms - the zero-point electromagnetic oscillations cause the "Lamb Shift" in the line spectra of atoms.

Now we have yet to develop a satisfactory quantum theory of gravity, but we can be fairly sure that the gravitational field also has zero-point oscillations. One property of these oscillations is that they take on larger values (greater intensity) on smaller length scales (or equivalently shorter time scales). As John A. Wheeler first pointed out in the 1960s [10] these oscillations should be enormously intense on a distance scale known as the Planck Length (about 10-33 cm). Things like the protons and neutrons of atomic nuclei (the densest form of matter known) are gigantic, but insubstantial cloud-like will-o'-the-wisps by comparison.[11] Because gravitation seems to be a kind of curvature of space-time caused by the presence of mass-energy, these zero-point gravitational oscillations may collectively give rise to a kind of "spacetime foam" that could support all sorts of interesting structure in what we normally think of as "empty space." So I think it possible that we may find someday that there is more to the mind than the brain. Perhaps some aspects of our mentality (our "souls") happen in the empty space between and within the atoms of our biochemical selves. And perhaps whatever happens in this "spacetime foam," including aspects of mind, may need to be incorporated into our theories of evolution someday.[12] Indeed, the noted neuropsychologist J. C. Eccles has already begun to consider the question of how "non-material" mental intentions may influence neural activity [13] and evolution. [14] He has considered the interaction between the world of matter-energy and the world of subjective personal experience, the soul. Rather than consider these worlds as separate, I suggest that they are united in a level of complexity that we have yet to explore.

As long as we are on the subject of gravity, I mention that the standard cosmological model is based (with some good evidence) partly on the Robertson-Walker solution to Einstein's gravitational field equations. The basic idea of this model can be grasped by imagining all of three-dimensional space to be like the surface of a balloon that is being inflated. The galaxies can be represented by pennies glued to the balloon (another John Wheeler idea). Now as the balloon expands, the pennies separate, as do the galaxies of our Universe. Since each point on the surface of the round balloon is as good as any other, each penny (galaxy) sees itself as the center, with all the other galaxies moving away from it, the speed of the movement being proportional to the distance between it and any other galaxy in question.

The implication of this is that according to the most widely accepted cosmological model, the center of the Universe for you is wherever you center your consciousness. What's more, as Buckaroo Bonzai says, "Wherever you go, there you are." You are stuck in the center of the Universe for good. This is a far cry from the days when religionists feared that science would displace humanity from the center of creation by showing that the earth revolved around the sun.

Now one from biology: The science that gave us evolution is entertaining the idea (in some quarters) that the self-replicating DNA molecule that encodes the instructions of our heredity may have arisen in the interaction of certain organic precursor molecules with a type of sediment that forms in a kind of self-replicating layered structure. In other words, we may indeed have been made (albeit in a more complicated manner than we had expected) from clay.

Finally, even our best models of the origin of the Universe stop short of explaining how the so-called Big Bang got kicked off. We can go right back to the first few fractions of a second, and then... practically speaking, it's back to God saying, "Let there be light."

The point of all this is that if the religionists had been willing to open themselves to the wonder of the physical Universe, their experience of the spiritual would have been enriched rather than denied. If the hubris of earlier scientists had made it seem less so, their hubris was a reaction to the hubris of the religionists who thought they knew everything there was to know about the universe without looking at it and everything there was to know about God without consulting him.

Making Science Moral

"Science is the road to Hell!" a country preacher hollered over my hometown radio station. Meanwhile, we kids were swallowing Sabin's oral polio vaccine, and wondering what Strontium-90 was and how it got in milk. Science is knowledge, which gives us ever more power to act and to make choices in the physical world. It can empower the powerless and deter the destructive, both of which I claim are part of peacemaking, or it can provide our world with the means of self-destruction. Its goodness and evil only reflect the goodness and evil in ourselves. It all depends on what we do with it.

One thing we sometimes do is to moralize it. A society with a sure idea of the Good will sometimes manipulate science to serve and support that idea. Such was the case with the various scientists who backed the popular racial theories that became the foundation of Nazism. This development was echoed by American scientists using various Intelligence Quotient tests to reduce the quotas of eastern European Jews who wanted to enter America to escape the gathering Holocaust.[15]

Nowadays, certain Fundamentalists are advocating "Scientific Creationism," an attempt to manipulate the truth about the material Universe (including our material selves) so as to control what people think. If knowledge of the material Universe can serve to warn us of idolatrous faith, then Creationism is an attempt to silence the alarm.

On the other hand, it is equally dangerous to scientize morality. The first attempt in this direction was Utilitarianism, the idea of "the greatest good for the greatest number," of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It is still used today by public policy makers in the form of "risk assessment," even though its deficiencies are apparent (as illustrated by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki[16]). Later on Karl Marx tried to get scientific in his critique of Capitalism, and his followers invented a solution that far exceeded Capitalism in its cruelty. Capitalism itself is based on the idea of homeostasis (a tendency of dynamical systems to oscillate about equilibrium points) that has no more moral value than a weight jiggling on a spring. Unless we Capitalists rig the game for moral reasons some people will always die from the effects of poverty.

Rather than moralize science, or scientize morality, it is perhaps wiser to make moral choices that are informed by science. Science cannot generate or guarantee morality, but it can spare the would be moralist from some obvious mistakes. For example, a little research (scientific or historical - now that we have the case of Rumania) can show that criminalizing abortion can have terrible consequences. Precipitating these consequences may be as evil as the anti-abortionists think abortion to be.

Science gives us power, and with power come choices that we are forced to make. The choices are the price of that power. The collective and individual agony over abortion is one example. Another is the simultaneous relief and revulsion we feel concerning military uses of science. Yet another is the Human Genome Project. Soon we will have sequenced all of the DNA in the nucleus of a human cell. Eventually this will make it possible to treat and even cure an enormous number of genetically mediated diseases. First, however, it will merely enable us to diagnose and predict them, temporarily creating an enormous moral problem for insurance companies and society as a whole. Science can give us a few hints about the choices we make regarding the powers science gives us. But ultimately a moral choice is a moral choice, which demands that science be transcended rather than contradicted or abandoned. Science provides factual knowledge - for wisdom to use the facts well we must seek elsewhere.

But there is one moral teaching than we can get from science - humility. Every scientist who has ever "reached for the stars" has experienced being wrong. Not just a little bit mistaken, but absolutely publicly dead wrong. It's not such a bad feeling really, and certainly not worth killing anybody or destroying anybody's career to avoid. Everyone should try it sometime.


  1. The failures of both science and religion are often attempts to deny doubt rather than embrace it, and press through it toward truth.
  2. For example, marine biologists measure whale sounds with single hydrophones instead of arrays, because they don't consider that single hydrophones may merely extend human hearing rather than mimic whale hearing. See "Cosmic Babble," Omni, April 1992.
  3. This delay has been interpreted by psychologists as evidence for unconscious filtering of information. I think they're a little behind the times with their electrical engineering metaphors. Anyone who knows about signal processing will tell you that it probably just takes time for the brains hardware to construct an image to present to consciousness. The reality we see is probably not filtered so much as made by our brains.
  4. See "Reviving a Dead Language," at this web site.
  5. Roshi Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Press, New York, 1980.
  6. Recounted by Paul Reps in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, Anchor Press, New York.
  7. See also Flatland, by Edwin A. Abbott, Dover Publications, New York, 1952, for a fanciful example of a two-dimensional being trying to describe his experience of being lifted out of the planar world (Flatland) in which he lived and into our three-dimensional world (Spaceland).
  8. See James Randi,The Faith Healers, Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1989, for numerous examples.
  9. In The Emperor's New Mind, Oxford University Press, New York, 1989. Penrose also argues that a correct quantum gravity theory may need to include a theory of consciousness.
  10. J. A. Wheeler, "Geometrodynamics and the Issue of the Final State," in Relativity Groups and Topology, edited by Cecile and Bryce DeWitt, Gordon and Breach, New York, 1964. It's inaccessible to the layman, but that's where I came across the idea.
  11. A perhaps non-coincidental parallel with the expressions of mystics of all traditions to the effect that the ordinary material world becomes insubstantial and transparent to them during their mystical experiences - that it becomes less real to them than the spiritual world.
  12. While it is true that evolutionists in the early part of the century fought against the involvement of mind or purpose in the evolutionary process, their effort was a reaction against even more naive theories put forward by religionists. I think we are all in for some surprises concerning the connection between matter and spirit as we discover more of the details of how evolution occurs. Simply put, I believe that any honest inquiry into the truth will point to Truth, if pursued far enough.
  13. J. C. Eccles, "Do mental events cause neural events analogously to the probability fields of quantum mechanics?" Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, B 227, pp411-428, 1986.
  14. J. C. Eccles, Evolution of the Brain: Creation of the Self, Routledge, New York, 1989. See especially Chapters 8 and 10.6-10.7.
  15. See The Mismeasure of Man and Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes by Stephen Jay Gould, W. W. Norton & Co., New York.
  16. See "Obscenity and Peace" in at this website. Note also Caiaphas' statement that it was more expedient for one man to die than for the nation to perish made in reference to Jesus.

04 November 1991

What's Wrong with Conservatism?

Editor's Note (1995): This is why I voted against Bush the Elder and for Clinton in 1992, a choice which I regret more with time. This piece was originally entitled "The Righteous State." Lest we be accused of bias, see What's Wrong with Liberalism?.

The beginnings of all things are weak and tender. We must therefore be clear-sighted in beginnings, for, as in their budding we discern not the danger, so in their full growth we discern not the remedy. — Michael de Montaigne: Essays, III, 1588

This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me. But in vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men. — Isaiah, as quoted by Jesus in Matthew 15:8,9

True Believers

There is a movement among some of my fellow Christians to establish America as a Christian Nation, the vanguard of the Kingdom of God. In their vision of America abortion will be made illegal, women will be discouraged from working outside the home, the death penalty will be applied more frequently and with less review, homosexuality will be re-criminalized, and Christianity will become the State Religion. Other religions will be banned or strongly encouraged to disappear before Christ comes with Power and Glory. Our judges will be required to interpret law in accord with a literal interpretation of scripture. Science will no longer be allowed to challenge religion, but will be made to serve it, as will politics, education, and every other aspect of social and private life. Every one will acknowledge the Bible (usually the King James Version - Latter Day Saints prefer the Book of Mormon) to be the inerrant Word of God, and we will be ruled by Church approved Regents, until He comes. Of course, we will convert the rest of the world, including Communists and Jews, by a judicious combination of persuasion and military power.

To its advocates it's beautiful. To its opponents it's laughable. To me it is cause for soul-searching about faith and politics. The Christian Rightists seek to get this society under control in order to achieve unity and purity of thought - they want to enforce assimilation of everyone into a Christian Fundamentalist mold, and to reject anyone who will not or cannot fit. This desire may come from a yearning in the soul akin to the Nazis' desire to achieve purity of race - to enforce assimilation into an ideal Aryan mold. The analogy may seem far-fetched, but the Christian Right neglects to condemn consistently the so-called "Christian Identity" Movement which consists of Skin-Heads, Neo-Nazis, and Klansmen who use the Bible to justify racism and anti-Semitism in the name of "kicking the Canaanite out of our land." Now, I don't really expect the Christian Right to inflict a regime of brutal violence, if it gains power. But I do expect it to enact increasingly repressive laws and to erode civil liberties in the name of God until freedom of speech applies only to those who say what the Christian Right wants to hear. Then dissenters will be dealt with severely, as were Jesus and the prophets.

Although the Christian Right is not yet strong enough to elect its own presidential candidate (Pat Robertson in 1988, Pat Buchanan in 1992), it is strong enough to set the agenda for presidential and other campaigns to a substantial degree, and to influence Presidential appointments. We Americans must remember that the Nazis seized power in Germany, not because they ever had a voting majority, but because they wanted to win so badly. They were willing to use any means necessary for as long as it took. Their opposition was not, and it lost, with terrible consequences. My main point is that the Christian Right poses a danger to freedom of thought and action in our society, to which liberals and conservatives have not responded. This lack of response may enable the Christian Right to dominate American politics without being a majority, giving them effective control over what we think and do.

The Political Climate

Of course, to mount an effective response to true believers, you have to believe in something yourself. These days American conservatives believe in God, Country, and Family Values (perhaps blasphemously assuming these ideas to be necessarily harmonious[1]) and generally go along with the Christian Right, whether or not they completely support the Christian Right agenda. After all, Christianity gives a high moral tone to their general abandonment of the already disenfranchised. Liberals want to care for people and the planet, but beyond that they seem to have abandoned their beliefs, including their belief in civil liberties and in the idea that America has a necessary and legitimate role in the world that must sometimes be furthered by force.[2] Hence, the 1988 presidential election was declared by its loser to be about competence, rather than ideology. In other words, at least in the area of political rhetoric, the Christian Right is largely unopposed with the exception of the abortion issue. (The "politically correct" brand of pseudo-intellectualism seems to me to include a kind of assault on the idea that being an American is a creedal heritage based on affirmation of the Constitution, rather than an ethnic heritage - it actually aids the Christian Right by diverting the energies of the political center.)

Compounding the weakness of the liberals and the dishonesty of the conservatives, is a devaluing of dissent in America. In June 1989 the President of the United States began attacking the first amendment guarantee of freedom of expression by calling for an amendment to the Constitution making it illegal to damage the flag.[3] Whatever his real motivation he managed to divert the attention of Christian Rightists from more difficult issues like school prayer, etc., while still retaining their favor.

Now flag burning is dissent not against the American Government, but against the American People and the American Way of Life. It is usually done by kooks, but needs to be protected because the majority of Americans can be and have been wrong, as when we interned Japanese Americans in concentration camps during WW II. We didn't kill them, as the Nazis killed the Jews, but we did ruin the lives they had made for themselves as they tried to live out the American Dream. The US government is now paying reparations to the victims, or to their estates, for this unjust act. By protecting the freedom to burn the flag we Americans can remind ourselves of our capacity for collective self-righteousness and tyranny of the minority by the majority.

But, according to Newsweek polls, 70% of us would rather forget. We Americans may yet vote away one of our freedoms. In October 1989, the Democrats (who would rather sell out civil liberties than defend their liberal tradition) pushed a law against flag-burning through Congress. It is in this political climate - conservatives pandering, liberals selling out (or in the case of "PC" flaking out), and the peoples' desire to feel good about themselves extending to self-righteousness - that the Christian Right is attempting to become powerful.[4]

The Ideology of Anxiety

Christian Right ideology begins with the Born Again Experience, because most Christian Rightists are Born Again Christian Fundamentalists.[5] By being Born Again they refer to a particular experience, a religious conversion[6] in which you feel the bottom drop out of your life and soul, and in which you may hear, see, and feel God pick you up and put you back together.[7] On the other hand, my mind will sometimes experience neural activity while I am asleep, and in order to explain the activity to itself, it will produce a dream. Similarly, while I think the conversion experience may be genuine (I'm sure of it in some people I know), I'm dubious of the conclusions many people draw after such an experience, particularly those who take on a rigid belief system rather than a simple childlike trust, or faith.

Once you are Born Again, you are Saved from Hell. Now Hell is so important to the Christian Fundamentalists that they get homesick for it if they go too long without hearing about it from the pulpit. It is as central to their belief as Jesus Christ, himself. It fulfills their need for revenge - Heaven is made sweeter for them when they contemplate the fate of their detractors. It helps them with self-control by providing the threat they need to coerce themselves into behaving as they want to.

I think Hell also names the overwhelming anxiety Christian Fundamentalists feel at the prospect of losing control of their soul, of their being, at death. It is not the fear that death is oblivion, but the fear that it is falling alone into an infinite abyss of time and space, that it is being "Lost," or worse.[8] Many Born Agains describe that kind of anxiety prior to their conversion. Just as a phobic will do anything to avoid the object of his or her phobia, a Christian Rightist will do anything to avoid experiencing that dread. As such, the Threat of Hell is often a more powerful motivator for him or her than the Love of Christ. The last thing a Fundamentalist wants to do is to screw up in God's eyes and lose his or her Salvation.[9]

Paradoxically, the anxiety named by Hell is why many Christian Fundamentalists exhibit an aggressive confidence which admits no possibility of error or doubt - it's called "cover-opposite" in the counseling trade ("reaction-formation" to Freudians). They can't stand to feel doubt because it exposes them to the fear of Hell, so they block it out, and cover up the fear with an opposing emotion, certainty of belief. Thus, many Christian Fundamentalists control their thoughts very carefully, keeping them away at all costs from certain aspects of the reality in their own souls. As a formerly Christian Fundamentalist friend of mine put it, "When you buy into the program, they put black holes in your personality that you can't look into."

They also block out external realities. A Christian Fundamentalist cannot risk the company of sinners, unless he or she is trying to "save" them, too. Otherwise, the contact may induce the Christian Fundamentalist to sin - if you listen to the sinner, you may see it his way - which will cause God to loose his fragile grip, and let you slip into the dreaded Hell.[10] Those who will not be saved are therefore to be shunned by the Christian Fundamentalist, if not persecuted. I mention persecution because the flip side of fear is anger. If someone pushes you in front of a speeding car just to scare you, you will react with hostility. If you challenge even the least central beliefs (and I affirm the most central belief) of a Fundamentalist, he or she may become as hostile as if you had pushed him or her in front of Hell. It is well to remember that Jesus got himself killed when he challenged beliefs of the Pharisees.

And it is easy to challenge the beliefs of the Christian Fundamentalists, because they perceive almost any comment on their dogma to be such a challenge. You see, in the face of Hell, you have to be right about all of what you believe, in the smallest detail. You become an all-or-nothing perfectionist because you can't afford any mistakes. If a chink can be found in the walls of your belief, there might be another, and another, and the walls might come tumbling down. And then, it's just you and Hell. So, you cling tightly to the historical traditions of your belief system. You accept no modifications, no new information regarding them. It's got to be all fixed, immutable, and written down. And for everyone else to be saved, they have to be just like it says, just like you. If they're not, then they'd better become like you, because they're dangerous to you and to themselves. So, if you're Saved, you either try to fix them, get away from them, or get them away from you. Anything to maintain control of your Salvation - except simply trusting in God, as it says in the Bible.

In other words, deep down Fundamentalists know that God is angry. They swallow the camel of their dogma like an elixir to anesthetize themselves to further experience of God's Wrath, and call the absence of it God's Love. Perhaps that explains their tendency to act out the Wrath upon those who do not conform to their dogma.

Idolatry of the Book

Up to this point, we see the Christian Rightist as having accepted an anxiety-ridden belief system from a religious experience. With this pre-structured belief system or dogma, the Christian Rightist drags issues into the center of his or her faith that are really peripheral. This making peripheral things to be as important as God is a kind of idolatry, of setting up false gods.

The beginning of that idolatry is literalism (called inerrancy by the literalists), the idea that the Bible is literally true in every word, that it is the unaltered word of God. The adjective "unaltered" is hard to justify, since even the King James Version has been changed since its first printing.[11] Specifically the 15 books of the Old Testament Apocrypha, which appeared in the original edition of 1611, were omitted in some editions in 1616, and were gradually dropped altogether. Long before that, the ending verses in Mark (16:9-20) were added by an editor in the second century A.D.[12] And then there are contradictions in the text itself. Matthew and Luke disagree concerning Jesus' lineage, while Mark doesn't know about His lineage, or considers it unimportant. Matthew and Mark disagree on how many blind men Jesus healed, and on how many men with unclean spirits Jesus cured by casting the spirits into swine.[13] Two contradictory accounts of the same event cannot both be literally true in every word. Literalism is wrong. To insist on literalism is to attempt to make God into your image of what you want God to be. And that is idolatry, because your image is not God. Or as a Born Again Christian friend of mine put it, "Literalism is reading the word without the Spirit."

The literalists may try to save themselves by insisting that I pick on trivial things rather than important ones, and that there are no contradictions in the Bible on any important points. I happen to agree, but they have abandoned their case by admitting that the Bible is subject to interpretation, at least as to what is and is not important in it. And here is where the literalist makes the second plunge into idolatry - selective literalism. Because the literalist needs to feel secure in salvation, to be right, he or she tends to gloss over some of the more challenging sections in the New Testament about loving the unlovable, and to emphasize some of the more self-congratulatory parts of the Old Testament about purity of body and belief. Now, finding only what you want to find in the Bible is another form of idolatry - instead of manipulating the image of God, you manipulate God's message. All Christians do it to some extent - it's just that literalists don't admit it. And because they don't admit it, they are not open to alternative interpretations, explanations, or points of view - they are unrepentant in their idolatry.

Literalists also insist that the whole Truth is in the Bible (which the Bible itself denies), and nowhere else. Moreover, they consider all of life to be merely a test (which, of course, they have passed by believing the correct doctrine) of who will get into Heaven, and all of history a test of which peoples are chosen. Now if this were true, life for Christians would be pointless. God could read the Bible to us as disembodied spirits and send us to paradise or perdition depending on how we liked it. But life can't be described, it has to be lived to be known - just as Kurosawa's cinematography has to be seen to be appreciated. In other words, the Truth is a living Truth in which we must participate for the Book about it to make sense. Part of the literalists' idolatry is that they deny the living Truth when it comes in the form of people's experience, science, history, or literature - whenever it surprises them by being greater than they imagine.[14]

As a religious scientist, I can't resist mentioning Creationism as an example of how literalists deny both biblical and extra-biblical truth. Creationism is the literalist doctrine that the story of Creation in Genesis 1-3 is true as history, rather than as an allegorical description of our spiritual situation. In the form of fossils, the stones cry out (to borrow a phrase from Luke 19:40) that a literal interpretation of Genesis is false. Some Creationists claim that fossils were put there either by God or the Devil to test us, but that argument is equivalent to claiming that God weaved, or allowed someone else to weave, deceit into the fabric of Creation, rather than Truth. Creationists should shudder to advance such blasphemy.

Creationism is not only false, it is idolatrous in the sense that Creationists make God out to be the God they expect from their particular reading of Genesis, rather than the God who is and who reaches into our personal experience. Why then do some folks insist so strongly on it? By interpreting Genesis literally, you can imagine that Original Sin is something someone else did long ago, that is mysteriously being held against you. It doesn't feel so bad that way, because it doesn't seem really a part of you. It can be washed off, and you can still be you. In particular, if you think you're already de-sinned, you think you can still be the same old you on both sides of Death. Death won't bring on any frightening changes. Thus thinking that you are already "fixed," you can allow yourself to be (in fact, you need to be) self-righteous, which is itself sinful.[15] In short, Creationism is bad religion.

It's also bad science. Science is the discipline of searching for truth by always being open to doubt about your ideas, and continually testing them against the world around you, and the ideas of your colleagues. "Creation Science" doesn't work this way at all. It has a built-in bias that the data can only be interpreted in a certain way. It admits no possibility of falsification, and therefore no possibility of being tested objectively. To teach Creationism as science is to teach students willfully to ignore and distort the evidence of their own eyes, in the same way that the Church refused to acknowledge that the earth moves around the sun, despite the evidence of the eye and telescope, because such facts were not mentioned in the Bible. To teach kids to distort data cripples their minds - it robs them of their God-given freedom to explore and to know God's Creation as it lies before them, and as they take part in it. And once you can get kids willfully to ignore reality, you can get them to believe whatever you want. It's a form of mind-control.[16]

So, to sum it up, the Christian Rightists have embraced a religion based more strongly on the fear of Hell than the Love of Christ. They try to control others by converting them, forcing them to modify their behavior, or shunning them, so that they will receive only those impressions from reality that harmonize with their beliefs. (In fact, many so circumscribe their world that they read nothing but the Bible and certain commentaries on it - a sort of book burning mentality.) They even try to control God (whom they apparently distrust) by second guessing His Judgment. They selectively ignore the Scripture that Judgment is the prerogative of Him who gave Himself for us. When they judge people to be Saved or Lost, they dehumanize them instead of treating them with respect and love. In short, I believe that while the Christian Rightists are Saved, some of their doctrines are inconsistent with their Christianity.

The Shopping List of Social Issues

So much for the who Christian Right people are and what they believe. Now let's look at what they want, the political issues the Christian Right is using to further its agenda of reuniting Church and State in America.

Take the issue of school prayer. The Christian Rightists want teachers to begin each day by leading their students in spoken prayer. The liberals, by determined foot-dragging, have been able to get the Christian Rightists to try for a simple moment of silence (or to use the Pledge of Allegiance as a substitute issue). Still, liberals answer this one weakly, repeating that the Founding Fathers wanted separation of Church and State. That's true, but it lacks punch. I, however, prefer that kids learn to pray - and the last thing I want for them to be taught is to chant in unison with other kids led by a paid agent of the State and to call it prayer.

You see, the issue is not prayer, it's power. In Matthew 6:5, Jesus criticizes those who make a public show of piety, admonishing his followers to pray in private. In other words, not only is there no Scriptural basis for school prayer, there is basis in Scripture to argue against it. The Christian Rightists are being selectively literalist here by ignoring an injunction from Christ in order to force kids to pray. It's a way of making them better, of sculpting their kids in their own image, of keeping them under control. (It's ironic, too, because it is in becoming like their parents that children inherit their particular style of Original Sin - see "Reviving a Dead Language" in this collection.)

That power is at issue really becomes clear when we consider the Christian Right attempt to control sexuality by attempting to suppress sex education. Considering that there is a growing list of incurable sexually transmitted diseases, and that one of them (AIDS) is fatal, I think failure to provide children with adequate information on sex to be, well, un-Christian. Remember that the father of the prodigal son set his kid up to return - broke, hungry, and humiliated, but alive and well. He did not set his kid up to die because he disapproved of the kid's behavior, as the Christian Rightists do by attempting to suppress information about safer sex. In other words, the Christian Right's making a public health issue into a moral one continues to hamper efforts to prevent the spread of AIDS.[17]

As long as we're on the subject of sex, how about abortion, an issue on which the Christian Right faces vocal opposition? Not all anti-abortionists are Christian Rightists, but the Christian Right uses this issue because it gets so much support from people who otherwise disagree with them. It is a way of amplifying the power of a minority to effect a change in the law, which will make it easier to effect other changes later. After all, you can't enter a room until you get your foot in the doorway.

The following two paragraphs are grayed because, after months of reflection, I cannot refute Mulry Tetlow's objections to them. Please see the Abortion Plank for an updated discussion. Also, I was unaware of the issue of late-term (sometimes referred to as "partial-birth" ) abortions at the time of this writing. I now have a separate piece on that issue. I have let the paragraphs stand here, because I still think they have some useful points.

The abortion debate is joined by two groups, "Pro-Choice" and "Pro-Life." Both terms are misleading. The Pro-Choicers work harder to resist the anti-abortionists than to improve women's other reproductive choices. And if the Pro-Lifers really care about life, why do most of them favor the death penalty, why are they willing to let teenagers die of AIDS instead of giving them safer sex information, and why do they forget to help women in our inner-city ghettos (which have an infant mortality rate higher than the national average) find prenatal care? Why are they not more active in stopping child abuse, improving day care, and seeking funds for pediatric medical care (as many Pro-Choicers do), rather than policing abortion clinics and maternity wards? The issue for the anti-abortionists is neither reverence for life, nor care of children, but self-justification. They want to show off to God how good they are by forcing pregnant women to have their babies. (There are also side issues driving this debate, such as the economic pressure two-career families put on one-career families, hostility to social change, and the idea that children are punishment for sexual promiscuity — an idea which invites child neglect and abuse.)

But to address the issue itself, everybody knows that when a woman has an abortion, a living being gets killed.[18] The "Pro-Lifers" argue that fetuses have a "right" to life, while the "Pro-Choicers" argue that a pregnant woman has a "right" to a safe and effective medical procedure. I think all this talk of "rights" polarizes the debate in a misleading way. A fetus is not the chattel property of a pregnant woman, nor is she a hostage to her fetus. Rather than to make the abortion debate one of individual rights versus the State, or, a mother's rights versus those of her unborn fetus, all parties to the debate need to realize that the Law is a blunt instrument, unsuitable to a situation as delicate as this one.[19] As a society we need to do more to care for children after they are born, and while they grow up. Then mothers would be less motivated to get rid of their unborn children. Or to put it theologically, the solution is more ministry and less moralizing. And not ministry by preaching, but ministry by caregiving, by helping with whatever kind of help is needed (including getting the father's help) to keep the mother a going concern as a human being , and to raise her children. We also need ministry to help women achieve status without having to become mothers, unless you like overpopulation and dysfunctional families. You see, if you're not willing to help raise those kids, then maybe you shouldn't be so eager to use the Law to force someone else to do so.

The abortion issue has of course raised the issue of judicial activism. When the US Supreme Court struck down state laws banning abortion in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Christian Rightists were against judicial activism. Now that the federal judiciary is dismantling Roe (due to judicial appointments by two presidents in a row, Reagan and Bush, who pandered to the Christian Right) they are changing their tune.

After all this discussion of killing, let's turn to the death penalty, itself. It's a wonder to me that the Christian Right favors it. Pretend you're living in the Roman colony of Judea. Would you be willing to argue in favor of the death penalty as the State leads two career criminals and one holy man to their crosses? The Christian belief is that God showed up as a homeless, condemned criminal. While the death penalty was pretty common in the Old Testament, every time the people applied it in the New Testament, they got the wrong guy. First they got Jesus, and then they got Stephen, the first lay minister. You'd think there would be a message in that.

Put in secular terms, the idea that we can apply the death penalty more justly than in ancient times is merely the idea that we won't nail anybody important. What really happens is that the powerful apply it to the powerless, in order to preserve their power, and "the way things ought to be." It's a way for the majority to self-righteously say, "We are not like you - we are good, and we'll be even better when you're not around." On the other hand, it was Jesus who stopped a perfectly Levitically legal execution of a prostitute by saying, "Let one among you who is without sin cast the first stone."

If it seems absurd that one associated with nuclear weapons would oppose the death penalty, consider the following.[20] We threaten or perform an act of war in order to get others in our power (or to keep them from getting us in theirs), whereas a convicted and incarcerated criminal (like a defeated enemy) is already in our power. If we have the will to keep him or her in our power, then execution is justified only by our anger - and anger of one form or another is the motivation for the convict's crime in the first place. By execution we compound anger with anger, rather than take an opportunity to be generous toward one least deserving. And if we have not the will to keep the convict in our power, we are killing the convict to make up for our own weakness.

Another Christian Right agenda is to recriminalize homosexuality. Jesus apparently said nothing about this subject, however. Not only are the Gospels silent regarding homosexuality, they are silent about Christ's sexuality, perhaps because those issues are not as important as His followers sometimes make them.[21] To construct an anti-homosexual message from the letters of Paul, without paying heed to the silence of Christ, is to commit the idolatry of selective literalism. It is remaking your religion to support your sexual politics. It is also denying the reality that about 10% of all people are homosexual, and that people do not choose their affectional orientation (a term having more to do with love than sex), any more than they choose their gender. If you're straight, consider this: could you feel the same way about someone of your own sex as you feel or felt about the love of your life? Not a chance. Being straight is not a matter of choice, it's just the way you are. Gays and lesbians don't get to choose, either. Nor do bisexuals, who are stuck in their ability to go both ways.

Now the Christian Right wants us to buy this shopping list of social issues, despite its price - which is more than the neglect of poverty, disease, and violence - it is servitude to their will, which they claim to be identical with God's.

To Rule in His Name

As I stated earlier, the Christian Rightists want to seize State Power, including the power of life and death, in order to control what people do, say , and think in order to maintain control of their salvation, rather than entrust it to God. In particular, the Christian Rightists want to control everyone else partly as a means of controlling themselves (if no one else can get away with sin, the Christian Rightists will be less tempted) and partly as a way of reassuring themselves that they are chosen (earning brownie points in Heaven). The social issues the Christian Rightists raise are mostly those easiest to use to further this agenda.

Well, is it Christian to seize State Power? Christ didn't seem to think so. He said that one who would be first must be last, and that one who would lead must be the servant of all. According to Christian belief, he could have taken over the government - indeed many thought he would - but he chose not to do so, even at the cost of his life. He chose to be a homeless wanderer, and to comment from within society.

And that should be the moral function of the Church - to inform society rather than to control it. When Christianity got in bed with the State, both became corrupt, because neither had another earthly power to which they needed answer. (And the Christian Fundamentalists are not immune to corruption - Mr. Bakker and Mr. Swaggart remind us of that.) The corruption stimulated the development of the idea of the separation of Church and State, and eventually the Protestant Reformation. Let me put it another way: There is not one among us fit to rule in Christ's stead. By trying to eliminate Sin in others by force, by organizing to take control of the government, we merely compound the sins of others with those of our own. We can love one another in His name, but not rule.

A Call for Moral Community

So in a nutshell, while the Christian Right is Christian, its dogma, issues, and agenda are not. The liberals should be less afraid to say so. The point of all this haranguing on my part is not so much to criticize the Christian Right, but to lash the liberals for ceding to them the moral high ground.

Liberals, however, do not feel legitimate in criticizing the Christian Right at this level, because the Christian Right has a legitimate criticism of them. Liberals don't seem to know what they believe in. They have some amorphous ideas about individual rights, and social welfare, and some ideas that government programs alone can solve deep social problems. They tend to think of military and social expenditures as "guns versus butter," even though our experience in Somalia indicates that we must have both. If there is any theme that unites these beliefs, it's what the Christian Rightists call Secular Humanism.

Now Secular Humanism is a misnomer in this case, because the liberals are not necessarily secular, nor are they sincerely humanist. Many of them are churchgoers, and the moral outrage of the unchurched at the hypocrisy of many Christians is an emotion that is itself religious.[22] As for the humanist part, they like humanity all right, and the poor, but only as long as they are somewhere else. For most liberals, government programs serve to assuage their guilt for their unwillingness to get personally involved with the people they subsidize. But social change cannot be bought by money alone — it needs your personal involvement in the lives of others. And not out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but out of genuinely wanting to be in community with them. The price of social change is not just your money, it is your time, it is you.

The problem with the liberals is not Secular Humanism, it's moral relativism, the idea that the Good is unknowable. The fallacy of that idea is that the Bad is knowable, and throughout human history, we have known it often and well. Moral relativism just isn't up to dealing with hard-core evil.

But the liberal brand of moral relativism isn't so much relative as perfectionist. They have a "sense" of the Good, but nobody comes anywhere close to meeting it. I met a young very liberal musician who adamantly argued that there was no fundamental difference between the actions of the Soviet Union and the actions of the United States. That we did not militarily occupy or subjugate our allies (as did the Soviets — remember Germany and Japan were our enemies in WW II), that we did not institute artificial famine, killing millions of our own citizens to make economic "progress" (as did the Soviets), etc., seemed to make no impression on him. I'll admit that he is an extreme case, but his type is common. He denies that the United States is basically good, because it is imperfect. He prefers to bemoan the flaws in this country rather than consider ways to use the country's strengths to correct them. (He also forgets that international politics is like the politics of a dysfunctional family - and that acting sane when everyone else is acting crazy can put you at a disadvantage.)

This attitude is partly based on a kind of learned helplessness that comes from a distorted individualism. If you as an individual can't do anything about the evils you see in the world, you tend to think the problems are insoluble, and give up. This defeatist attitude amounts to amnesia regarding the successful community organizing by many liberals in the 1960's and 1970's. Of course you can't do anything about social, national, or global problems by yourself. You have to act in community with your fellow human beings. And if your fellow human beings simply do not form a community, you have to create it.[23]

A striking description of the sense of community was given by a drill instructor (Captain Pingree, USMC, 1982) filmed by Gwynne Dyer's crew for his PBS television series WAR. The instructor tells his recruits that they should rescue a wounded comrade under fire, "because he's a Marine, and he's in your unit. He's one of you." The drill instructor imbues his men with the belief that they are going to go out there and do good. And, if we ask them to fight only for good causes, they will do good, relatively speaking. But we must remember that Adolf Hitler also created a sense of community (Scott Peck would say pseudo-community) among his people, and got them to do evil. Lesson one, liberals: sometimes a sense of community is created by leaders with strong beliefs. Lesson two: if you do not create community for the Good, you leave a moral vacuum which someone else may fill by creating community for something less than the Good.

Lest this sound like implicitly regarding the public as simply a mobile vulgus, a mob, I point out that following a bad leader in no way absolves you from guilt for your actions. (The United States and its allies said as much at the Nuremberg trials.) You are indeed responsible for yourself as a moral individual, and no one else is responsible for you. But you are also responsible to the community in which you find yourself, to make it a moral community, as it is responsible to you, to correct you when you get too far out of line. You and your community must simply take care to use moral means to achieve your objectives, so that you will not have done great wrong, in case you turn out to be mistaken.

The creation of moral community is hampered by the lack of moral, emotional language, what I call the language of faith. Good, old fashioned words like sin, evil, judgment, deliverance, faith, hope, and ministry, have all been cheapened by their misuse in the sales pitches of the Christian Rightists. The Christian Rightists have even abused the name of God, by ascribing to him a limited, human ideology. Now to use these words you don't have to subscribe to Christianity, or any organized religion. But you do need to have convictions of some kind, and to be clear about them. If you say you have none, you are probably lying, and in any case I don't want you for my leader.

The liberals have thus far failed to create a national community,[24] and have abandoned the field (as they slide leftward) to a group of true believers, the Christian Rightists, whose agenda is mistaken if not in part evil. The Christian Rightists can move people with their passionate rhetoric, while the liberals shun such rhetoric because it smacks of demagoguery. But the liberals must get passionate in order to convince people to follow them. To get passionate they must believe that they know the Good, and yet retain the grace to doubt their beliefs, and even to change them when they're wrong. (I think belief without doubt is simply denial of reality, in the sense that drug abuse counselors might use that phrase - it is a "God-addiction.")

And what is the Good? Knowledge of the Good has eluded philosophy for centuries because it's a religious problem. The Good is something you come to know, rather than something you can deduce by unaided reason. Reason can (and must) check an idea of the Good against reality, but it cannot generate that idea. To do good, you must act on faith without leaving your brain behind.[25]

The error made by the Christian Rightists, their conservative fellow travelers, and their muddle-headed liberal[26] opponents is failure to scrutinize their beliefs; they allow themselves to be ultimately concerned about things that are less than ultimate. The consequence may be the Self-Righteous State, an America in which freedom and justice are sacrificed to appease a Fundamentalist misconception of God, by a self-willed people hell-bent on showing Jesus how right they are about his Word.


  1. For a discussion of New Testament as distinct from family values, see L. William Countryman, Dirt, Greed, and Sex: Sexual Ethics in the New Testament and their implications for today, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, 1988.
  2. The reflexive pacifism associated with liberals after the Vietnam War may have undercut their ability to speak convincingly for domestic social justice, because conservatives consider reflexive pacifism to be a threat. See for an extreme example, David Horowitz, "The 'Peace' Movement," Second Thoughts Project, PO Box 2669, Hollywood, CA, 1991. Horowitz contends that the peace movement has "sold its collective soul to the revolutionary enthusiasms of the political Left," which he characterizes as "a nihilistic force whose goal is to deconstruct and dismantle America as a democracy and a nation," because "what the Left wants is that the U.S. should have no army at all." In light of this fear, conservatives may view attempts to change part of "the system" as covert attempts to dismantle all of it.
  3. Perhaps this attack on individual liberty is encouraged by the idolatrous practice of putting our national flag in churches. I consider this idolatrous because, while I love both my God and my country, I save my worship for God alone -- as far as I'm concerned, the flag stays outside the sanctuary.
  4. Or the sin of Pride. See for example C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Collier Books, New York, 1952, pp 108-114.
  5. I distinguish between Born Again Christians who I believe serve as reminders of the living Christ, and Born Again Christian Fundamentalists who I believe cover their religious experience with idolatry and willfulness.
  6. Religious conversion experiences are described extensively in William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, New American Library, New York, 1958.
  7. If you haven't had the experience, see The Varieties of Religious Experience, op. cit. You can find a vivid portrayal of one variety of it in James Baldwin's Go Tell it on the Mountain and of its effects on personality in his Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone (in this variety the experience is filled more by the desire to escape from oneself than to be with God -- it is similar to the denial and transformation of self that some people try to achieve by attempting suicide). Another variety of it seems like the experience of kensho described by some Buddhists -- see Roshi Philip Kapleau, The Three Pillars of Zen, Anchor Press, Garden City, NY, 1980. I think some people have a mostly emotional experience, and believe they have been born again, while others have experiences that go much deeper, as St. Augustine describes in his Confessions.
  8. If you've never felt such anxiety, read The Tibetan Book of the Dead in a lonely place. For more on anxiety and faith see Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 1952.
  9. Many Christians still believe that God is a vengeful, spiteful, mean-spirited tyrant. A striking and humorous discussion of this is in Warren S. Smith, ed., The Religious Speeches of Bernard Shaw, McGraw-Hill, 1963. In particular, Shaw describes how he once pulled out his pocket watch and challenged God to prove his existence by striking Shaw dead in five minutes, which God declined to do. I think that those who claim that God will abandon them on any pretext may not know him as they claim they do.
  10. Some Christian Fundamentalists say that being with certain unsaved people "brings them down." That is, they mistake an emotional state (which is fragile) for Salvation (which is infinitely robust). Perhaps they are using their beliefs to evade dealing with their emotional problems, which enables them to feel good about themselves while they turn their churches into self-congratulatory societies (the self-flagellation in their sermons is partly initiatory hazing for newcomers, and partly a smokescreen -- the expressions of sin most easy to confess, the sexual and material, are typically substituted in place of the harder ones like betrayal and false witness). This is ironic, because evading one's emotional problems worsens one's self-estrangement (a form of Sin -- see "Reviving a Dead Language," herein). Thus, some Fundamentalists may abuse their faith to strengthen their Sin and call it Salvation. Perhaps they might do better to explore this feeling of being "brought down," and to get to know themselves as they are, i.e., to Confess. Then they would realize that their Salvation is founded not upon the sand of their loving God, but on the Rock of God's loving them.
  11. See "Introduction to the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books" in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha, edited by Bruce Metzger and Roland Murphy, Oxford University Press, 1991.
  12. See the notes to these verses in The New Oxford Annotated Bible or The New Jerusalem Bible , edited by Henry Wansbrough, Doubleday, New York, 1985. For accuracy of translation into English, and level of scholarship in the annotations, these two translations of the Bible are probably the best. However, since there is also truth in beauty, I also read the King James Version.
  13. See also Richard W. Hinton, Arsenal for Skeptics, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1934, and Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason , 1794, republished by Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1984. Richard Elliott Friedman discusses the sources of some of the contradictions in the Hebrew Bible in Who Wrote the Bible? , Harper and Row, New York, 1989.
  14. Another guise of literalism is the abuse of the idea that the Bible "interprets itself" when one compares one part of scripture with another. The comparison is typically done via "word studies" in which passages containing related phrases are found with the aid of a concordance. When used with humility, such word studies can enrich your appreciation of the Bible. On the other hand, they can be abused in such a way as to make of the Bible "a talisman that is meticulously looked at rather than read," as I think Harold Bloom stated -- subjecting God's message itself to idol worship, and leaving the would be follower of Christ straining to find deeply hidden meaning while ignoring and often disobeying meanings that are perfectly obvious. Or as Christ put it, straining at gnats and swallowing camels.
  15. For Born Again Christians, the intimate experience of God's presence (described in such terms as the "indwelling of the Spirit of God" in one's soul) breaks through their estrangement from God, which is the most basic form of sin. Nevertheless, the tendency to estrange oneself again is something these folks struggle with as long as they live. That is, they are Forgiven, rather than perfected, in this life.
  16. For a detailed scientific refutation of Creationism, see Stephen Jay Gould, Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1983.
  17. To be fair, the Christian Right deserves credit for emphasizing a deficiency of public school sex-education programs. In order to separate sex-information from any particular religious morality, educationists often divorce sexuality from morality altogether. I think that in sexual expression people must care for themselves, each other, their potential progeny, and all of the rest of us who would otherwise be burdened or endangered by their carelessness. That is, sexuality has a way of connecting each of us to all the others which morally obliges us to kindness, if not love. That much can be taught in public schools. Beyond that, it is up to the Church to respect the separation of Church and State, and to do its job in Sunday School. See also Not Just Sunday School at this web site.
  18. Let's be honest. As Pope John Paul II argues in his encyclical "Veritatis Splendor" (L'Osservatore Romano, 40, 6 October 1993, par 78-80), abortion is one of those acts whose object cannot be ordered to God. It is a "negation of the honour due to the Creator," and therefore intrinsece malum, intrinsically evil. I differ with His Holiness in that I question the "goodness" of using the Law to force women to carry their babies to term. See the tract Splendor is as Splendor Does, and the Abortion Plank at at this web site.
  19. As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, "The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the Law." One interpretation of this (which most Christians rationalize their way around) is that we can abuse the Law (our understanding of God's commandments) to make our Sin worse than it already is. If Sin is estrangement (see "Reviving a Dead Language, herein) then using the law to prohibit abortion can make our Sin worse by widening the already sinful separation between the legal interests of pregnant women and those of their fetuses. Moreover, both sides of the abortion debate trivialize the concept of "rights" by attempting to argue for them in a context (the first trimester of pregnancy) in which it is currently beyond human competence to render a factually based decision regarding such rights. I regard such trivialization as arrogant and dangerous.
  20. Yes, I know that the Marquis de Sade opposed the death penalty, too. Apparently even some perverts think it's a bad idea. The moral problems associated with nuclear weapons design are discussed in Obscenity and Peace, at this web site.
  21. Maybe the Gospels have to be silent. Had they described Jesus as single or married without children, detractors of his time might have accused him of failing to keep his part of Israel's covenant relationship with God by forgoing his duty to procreate. Had they described him as married with children, struggles would have ensued as to "the succession" as did in Islam, even though the Prophet left no direct male descendants. And of course, the church after Paul could never have reconciled itself to a married Christ. In other words, when it comes to sex there's just no pleasing us human beings. The reader should note that some Gnostic writings allude to Jesus having had affectionate relations with Mary Magdalene - See The Nag Hammadi Library in English, James M. Robinson, ed., Harper and Row, San Francisco, 1988. And few people would have the faith to accept Jesus as the Messiah had the Gospels reported him as gay or female. See also "On Becoming a Christian" at this site.
  22. As evidence I cite "The Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles and Values," from the Fall 1989 issue Free Inquiry, a publication of the Council for Democratic and Secular Humanism (CODESH). It is a creed. Moreover, CODESH is encouraging the formation of humanist groups around the country — effectively secular churches in which believers can meet to encourage one another in the faith. Finally, the anti-religious articles in various issues of the publication show that it is parasitic — if the Church did not exist, neither could this kind of Secular Humanism.
  23. See M. Scott Peck's The Different Drum, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1987, although he speaks more of community for its own sake rather than community with a specific agenda.
  24. The coalition that propelled President Clinton into the White House may be short-lived, since most Americans disagree with parts of the usual pre-packaged liberalism, and Mr. Clinton has yet to abandon the Democratic left wing, in terms of some of his policies and political appointees.
  25. An idea discussed at length in C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp 74-78.
  26. Some liberals are anything but muddle-headed in their attempts to circumvent the law and the constitution to silence and disempower their opponents. I refer specifically to "dirty tricks," lies, and lawsuits I witnessed during a local political campaign. It seems that some liberals embrace a variant of moral relativism that states "I'm smarter and morally superior because I'm liberal, therefore what I want is right, regardless of what the law says." Apparently liberals can themselves present a danger to our republic when they lose site of "the moral law as a whole," as C. S. Lewis put it. When liberals lose the Grace to Doubt, they step into the gray zone between Good and Evil, just like anybody else.