Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Religion of Idiots

According to the American National Election Studies (ANES) Guide to Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior, between 1980 and 2004, when asked “Do you consider religion to be an important part of your life, or not?” Americans answer in the affirmative at the rate of 75-79 per cent. ( However, in the same period, those who never attended a religious service climbed from 14 per cent to 35 per cent. ( The American Religious Identification Survey (2001) by Barry A. Kosmin, Egon Mayer, and Ariela Keysar at the City University of New York showed that the number of Americans who identified with no religious heritage rose from 8 to 14 per cent or 14.3 million to 29.4 million between 1990 and 2001. ( The Harris Poll #80, “While Most U.S. Adults Believe in God, Only 58 Percent are `Absolutely Certain’" in 2006 indicated that 18 per cent of the population never attended religious services, but, as the title indicates, the majority attending may not actually believe in God. ( David T. Olsen in “12 Surprising Facts about the American Church” (2004) indicates that the number of regular Christian church attendees is far less than other studies have indicated (only about 19 per cent). ( In any event, according to the Barna Group, “Relatively few people - just one out of every six - believe that spiritual maturity is meant to be developed within the context of a local church or within the context of a community of faith.” (

With increasing numbers of Americans declining to attend religious services yet considering themselves still spiritual, they have to find some outlet for their religious, er, spiritual fervor. And, since they can’t possibly join a group that believes in somebody or something smarter than they are (you know, like a Deity) they have to find something that supports their own sense of self-worth (if not outright narcissism). And, since celebrities and the other media elites are the most narcissistic individuals in our society, you can chart the most significant issue of the decade based on celebrity involvement and the number of After-School Specials dedicated to the topic.

Thus, in the 1970s the issue was child pornography. Tons of ink were devoted to the problem and miles of tape and celluloid were dedicated to eradicating this scourge. We had to get rid of this bane. However, people change and evolve and move onto other issues. The media and Hollywood forgot about child pornography, the problem didn’t go away, and the internet came along and made the problem worse. During the 1970s, the threat of global cooling also enjoyed a brief popularity (Walter Sullivan, “Scientists Ask Why World Climate Is Changing; Major Cooling May Be Ahead; Scientists Ponder Why World's Climate Is Changing; a Major Cooling Widely Considered to Be Inevitable,” The New York Times, 21 May 1975,

In the 1980s the twin scourges of teen pregnancy and AIDS were the earnest focus of those directing their spiritual energies towards the cause du jour. These problems still haven’t been solved, but the true believers have moved on to more important issues – at least ones that might be more easily solved or get them more face time.

In the 1990s the problem that was destroying the US from within was the militias. They didn’t go away when that bastard McVeigh died, but the world didn’t end because of the militias, so the true believers moved on.

These were all valid causes to work against or to try to improve. However, because the individuals championing them were their own locus of authority, they could never stay focused on the important issues, but changed their focus as they themselves changed. Their lives are impermanent so their belief structures are equally in constant flux.

In every case, anybody who disagreed with the particular focus taken on the latest cultural issue or who offered different solutions was treated as a heretic. As often happens with political zealots, the politics of these true believers became their religion. Reason and knowledge make no sense to these people. They accept ideas on faith alone. But, to paraphrase Pope Benedict XVI, any belief structure that is not reasonable is not valid. Most of these politico-cultural fads embody the most irrational aspects of religion, bordering on superstition, without any of religion’s more reasonable (not to say rational) aspects.

The problem with these earlier neo-religious fads was that there was no apocalypse. Sure, the millenarianism of the Y2K hype was fun, but it quickly burned out when all the planes didn’t fall out of the sky on 1 January 2000 as some had predicted. Now, the neo-religious issue is global warming. Finally, those looking for something to put their faith in have their very own apocalypse.

The point of this essay is not whether global warming exists or not. The point of this essay is not whether we should reduce pollution (it would be irrational not to want to reduce pollution). The point is that, instead of the unbiased language one normally associates with scientific inquiry, the debate has become one better characterized in religious terms. Michael Crichton lays out all the similarities between environmentalism and religious belief, noting, “Environmentalism seems to be the religion of choice for urban atheists.” The general point of his speech is that substituting belief based on faith alone for reasonable scientific discussion is detrimental to the success of environmentalism ( – the same could be said for global warming. Similarly, the Administrator of NASA, Michael Griffin has also likened the apocalyptic version of global warming to a religious belief ( (“Religion of Global Warming,” offers a long list of articles comparing proponents of global warming to religious adherents).

The language of the apocalyptic version of global warming is best understood as that of an unreasonable fundamentalist religion with all the zealotry and hatred that goes along with that. Anybody who offers a counter argument or who doesn’t accept the orthodox view of the apocalypse is not just stupid but actually evil.

Ellen Goodman in a Boston Globe article, “No Change in Political Climate” (9 Feb. 2007) writes favorably of, “American University's Matthew Nisbet [who] is among those who see the importance of expanding the story beyond scientists. He is charting the reframing of climate change into a moral and religious issue …” ( Goodman also opines: “I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.” Scott Pelley, a correspondent for CBS News also compares those who don’t accept Al Gore’s version of global warming (or climate change) in its entirety -- or those who are outright skeptical – to Holocaust deniers ( A Google search of “global warming deniers” returns 768,000 hits.

The discourse itself is in religious terms. I’m not talking about those religious groups which have adopted global warming as part of their belief structure (such as the two Episcopalian bishops who called on their flocks to give up carbon for Lent Rather, this is about those who, with no religion or spiritual structure of their own, have conflated and sublimated political or cultural ideology with religious belief. In an interview with Al Gore in the Washington Post (“Gore and Guggenheim: Speaking `Truth’ to Power”), Michael O’Sullivan writes, “The issue of global warming, he believes, is no longer one of science, but has become, like the civil rights struggle did, one of morality. `This is being redefined as a choice between good and evil,’ Gore says unequivocally. As for his own role in the crusade, he describes himself less as a leader than as a simple `messenger.’ When it is pointed out just how, um, Christ-like that sounds, he demurs, hemming and hawing with an embarrassed laugh. `I'm sorry. I'm not intentionally trying to put myself in that . . . . Puh-lease.’" O’Sullivan calls Gore “a man on a mission, maybe even with a calling.” The director of An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim, “Like a skeptic at a revival meeting, … became a convert to the cause,” after seeing Gore’s slideshow on global warming. ( In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore uses the language of religion when he calls global warming, “the most important moral, ethical, spiritual and political issue humankind has ever faced.”

Those who challenge any aspect of the global warming orthodoxy are often referred to as “heretics.” See, for example, “Climate Change ‘Heretics’: Adapt While You Can” The Wall Street Journal ( or “Wildlife groups axe Bellamy as global warming ‘heretic’” Times Online ( Freeman Dyson proudly accepts the label of heretic in “Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society,” an excerpt from his book, Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe ( The mainstream media consistently excommunicates or shuns global warming heretics who stray from the orthodoxy or canon. Julia A. Seymour and Dan Gainor, “Global Warming Censored: How the Major Networks Silence the Debate on Climate Change,” Business and Media Institute (
Plato in The Republic in “The Divided Line” demonstrated the difference between believing a thing and knowing a thing. For Plato, philosophers/scientists (for the ancient Greeks, the two were the same) devoted themselves to discovering truth through rational inquiry. That is, they moved from believing a thing to knowing a thing. And, as St. Thomas Aquinas demonstrated in the Summa Theologica, faith has its realm (religion) and reason has its realm (science). The problem with the current apocalyptic view of global warming is that it’s moved from a proper scientific discourse to that of religious speech – this makes it the religion of idiots.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From What Idiot Do You Get Your News?

The fact that journalism in this country is biased is a truism. Whether it’s FOX on the right or CNN on the left, it’s all biased. This bias is no longer ideological (that is, based on ideas) rather, it is political (that is, trying to get the candidates of one party or the other elected no matter what ideas or plans they might champion). As part of his ongoing series on Der Spiegel’s daily news letter entitled, “West Wing: The Battle for the White House,” Gabor Steingart wrote a troubling piece on the media in the US on 13 May entitled, “The Media’s Mini Truths” (,1518,553068,00.html). He states, correctly, “the real loser of the election campaign is the American people. They have been betrayed by cynical journalists who have constantly opted for style over substance.” This “style” results in all issues being driven out of the political discourse in favor of oversimplified sound bites. More troubling, Steingart notes that many of the “experts” working for the media are really employees of the candidates or their respective parties. He notes, for example, Karl Rove “is now under contract with Fox News, Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal.” Likewise, “Donna Brazile, who appears on CNN as a commentator on every election night … is actually a member of the exclusive Democratic National Committee and one of her party's superdelegates.” As a result of infusing the news with the propaganda of these “expert analysts” – talking heads – journalism this election cycle is the most politicized and biased in memory.

The political as opposed to ideological focus of journalism and its oversimplification of important concepts is best exemplified in the popular usage of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” As descriptors, these two terms are now meaningless in the US. It is possible to define something in its opposite. For example, if something is liberal, the opposite might be considered conservative. However, for this approach to work, you have to have something at least positive. However, in this country, both conservatism and liberalism are both defined by their opposites. Thus, if the Democrats are for something, the Republicans are automatically opposed to it, and vice versa. For example, in most of the world, liberals are internationalists, while conservatives are nationalists. But, in this country, the Democrats are opposed to NAFTA largely for the reason that the Republicans are in favor of it. Thus, the “liberals” (Democrats) are, in this particular case, nationalists, while the “conservatives” (Republicans) are internationalists. The reality is that the terms liberal and conservative in this country have become synonymous with DNC and RNC, which is not very instructive.

Part of the reason for this oversimplification of domestic politics is the economic and political need for the news media to reduce everything to easily digested nuggets. The media must package as many flashy geegaws as possible into twenty minutes or the first few pages to ensure maximum ratings and maximum earnings. Call it news-tainment. Another example of this oversimplification is the reduction by the media and the public of the rest of the world into two camps: those who are our friends and those who are not yet our friends. But, as soon as the second group accepts democracy and McDonalds, they will become our friends. This is what passes for foreign policy analysis for most of the media and most of the undereducated public.

Like so much else in this country, the root fault with the media is the fault of the US educational behemoth to produce educated individuals. And, if you think about it, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats want really well-educated individuals. The Republicans don’t want educated persons because they organize and create things like unions. The Democrats don’t want well-educated individuals either because educated persons ask questions and challenge authority. The DNC knows what’s best for us, even if we don’t. And by God they, as the anointed, are going to fix us.

Perhaps that’s why the media has been woefully lax in reporting on the presidential candidates’ educational platforms. In the 19 May 2008 issue of US News & World Report, “Not a Primary Concern: In the Background, the Candidates Make Plans for America’s Schools,” Dana Hawkins-Simons, in a brilliant understatement, observes, “How each of the presidential candidates would attempt to improve the American school system is difficult to ascertain, given the limited dialogue on education thus far on the campaign trail.” If by “limited,” Hawkins-Simons means non-existent, then the candidates have exhausted the meaning of “limited.” Hawkins-Simons breaks down the candidate’s stands on three issues: No Child Left Behind, Teacher Pay, and Higher Education Affordability. At the time of the article, Hillary Clinton was still in the race. Not surprisingly, her ideas and those of Barrack Obama were barely distinguishable. However, just looking at Obama’s and John McCain’s stands on these three issue, the similarities are staggering. Both would keep NCLB (which has proven to be an unmitigated disaster, but tweak the tests. Both candidates believe merit pay is the best way to ensure equitable treatment of teachers. However, since most merit pay systems are tied to student test performances, we’re back to the miasma of teaching to the test – another focus of NCLB that has crippled our educational system. The only significant difference between the two candidates on education is that Obama would provide tax credits for college tuition to make higher education more affordable while McCain would open up junior colleges to receive more federal financial aid to train displaced workers. Education is just one of many issues that is too complex to be solved by the undereducated listening to cynical purveyors of news-tainment.