Saturday, July 15, 2006

Those silly Christians

Religious taxidermy

Beleaguered Christians must be breathing a sigh of relief at this small victory in their frantic defense against the great War on Christianity. A judge on the U.S. District Court decided not to act against the national motto “In God we trust.”

From the June 17, 2006, Letters to The Bee:

Amen to ‘In God we trust’

Re “Judge upholds ‘In God we trust’,” June 13: U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr.'s decision that the motto “In God we trust” has “nothing whatsoever to do with the establishment of religion” has three cogent implications. It implies that “God” is not exclusive to any one religion, that “God” can be viewed as the source of all religions and that no one person or religion speaks for God. I would say this is a monumental decision to which we can all say, “Amen.”

Burt Wilson, Sacramento

I do not for a moment question Mr. Wilson's sincerity, but I question what he is celebrating. Damrell's ruling is just another instance of the acceptance of the “ceremonial deism” argument, which faithful Christians should actually disdain. The idea is that public affirmations of such religious sentiments as “In God we trust” are basically meaningless—superficially devout but in reality leached of all significance. Wikipedia provides the following brief definition:

Ceremonial deism is a legal term used in the United States for nominally religious statements and practices deemed to be merely ritual and nonreligious through long customary usage.

Examples include reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, and In God We Trust on U.S. money.

Those Christians who don't like living in a secular society think that they can use their majority status to compell the adoption of their favorite words and symbols in public life. They feel put upon—indeed, warred against—whenever the judiciary frustrates their attempts to privilege their sectarian interests. The Knights of Columbus, a Roman Catholic organization, in 1952 adopted the goal of inserting “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Although they were initially unsuccessful, the Knights and other religious lobbyists were able to take advantage of that brief period when President Eisenhower enjoyed a Republican majority in Congress. The Pledge was amended in 1954. (Today's “defenders” of the Pledge conveniently forget that it was a secular composition by socialist Francis Bellamy.)

The simple fact remains that religious practices are drained of their content whenever they are imposed on those who do not share the associated belief system. The wall of separation between church and state is as much a wall of protection as anything else. It not only protects the state from undue entanglement in religious matters, it certainly protects religion from the state. Is there any better way of killing a religion than making it part of the civil government? I doubt it. Devout Christians should blanch at the notion of the United States being “officially Christian,” as this would most assuredly turn the practice of that faith into mere lip service. Do you want your beliefs stuffed and mounted for public display, a dead thing on a pedestal? This has happened before, in matters great and small. Religionists should beware.

And with that I bid you goodbye—which, by the way, used to mean “God be with you,” but has long since become an empty and conventional salutation that atheists can use as casually as the most fervent believer.

You've been warned!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The saucy goose

Take a gander at this

Ann Coulter is on the bestseller lists again with her book Godless. You might think that this would be one of the signs of the apocalypse, but instead it's just a signal for her fans to strut their stuff and join their heroine in their favorite past-time: lying.

I should be more charitable (unlike Ann). Perhaps Ann's fans are entirely sincere and can't tell when they're being fed propaganda. Are they dupes or confederates? It can be quite difficult to tell.

From the June 16, 2006, Letters to The Bee:

Common tactics of the left

Re “Ann Coulter and the GOP,” letter, June 12: I have a suggestion for Michael Meredith-Saunders regarding his opinion of Ann Coulter and how “the good, decent people of the GOP need to take their party back” by ridding the influence of Coulter. He might try actually reading what she has to say before forming an opinion.

Coulter generates so much outrage from the left mainly because she has the courage to take on liberals' sacred cows. She has not trashed the 9/11 widows known as the Jersey girls. She has in fact expressed sympathy to them for their loss. But since these widows have used their celebrity to be outspoken critics of the Bush administration and the New York Port Authority, Coulter feels they should not be exempt from criticism of their words and actions.

This is a common tactic of the left. Like using Cindy Sheehan to slam President Bush. Critics of what she says are accused of being mean and hateful since she tragically lost her son in Iraq.

Scott Nichols, Rescue

We should all thank Mr. Nichols for explaining to us that Coulter is merely responding to a “common tactic of the left” when she heaps abuse on others. Oh, wait a minute! He said that she does not do that: “She has not trashed the 9/11 widows.” Thanks for the heads up, Scott! Where we did we get that false impression? I wonder.

As Media Matters for America has noted, on Page 103 of her book Godless: The Church of Liberalism (Crown Forum), Coulter unleashed the following attack on the 9-11 widows who criticized the Bush administration's handling of terrorism: “These broads are millionaires, lionized on TV and in articles about them, reveling in their status as celebrities and stalked by grief-arazzis. I've never seen people enjoying their husbands' deaths so much.”

Let's see now: “These broads,” “enjoying their husbands' deaths” well, I sure don't see any trashing there! And we know that Scott Nichols doesn't either. He is a true Coulterite.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Stung by The Bee

This was so predictable

After decades of research and controversy, there is still no significant evidence that anyone possesses so-called “psychic” powers. There's a lot of evidence, however, that I don't.

When I complained to Allen Pierleoni about his puff-piece interview on Allison DuBois, a professional medium and “profiler” who is currently reaping the rewards of a book tour and the dramatization of her life by the NBC series Medium, I hoped to get something better than the curt acknowledgment he sent me. (“Thanks for taking the time to read the piece, Anthony, and share your thoughts.”) Well, given that Pierleoni had been the author of the credulous article in the first place, perhaps it was unrealistic to expect him to take seriously the disappointment of a skeptic.

I sent a copy of my comments to Armando Acuña, the public editor of The Bee (a position that used to be called “ombudsman”). It's the public editor's job to provide a view of The Bee's journalistic endeavors that is professionally informed (the public editor is a newspaperman, after all) and independent of editorial oversight (his column is officially off-limits to The Bee's editorial staff and management). No doubt Acuña would share some of our concern over the use of the newspaper's Scene section for the irresponsible promotion of charlantry.

Boy, was I wrong! From the June 25, 2006, installment of The Public Editor:

And reader Anthony Barcellos of Davis asked: “Does a feature writer have responsibilities different from those of a news reporter? I know that the Scene section … is devoted to entertainment rather than hard news, but I think even entertainment articles should be scrupulously factual.”

Here's what I think. Yes, the story could have been more skeptical, though there is a deliberate element of tongue-in-cheek to some of the “serious” questions that are laugh-out-loud funny.

Like this one: “Isn't seeing dead people sometimes frightening?” Or this one: “Sometimes you have uncontrollable mental flashes, such as seeing a woman murdered while you're grocery shopping. And you constantly get mental impressions from people around you. I can see where your ability might be a day-to-day hassle.”

Mainly, though, I think people should lighten up. We're talking about ghosts after all.

Yeah, we're talking about ghosts. And seeing dead people. And problems while grocery shopping. Acuña thinks it's all kind of silly—and I do, in fact, agree— but he does not see that there is a problem in the way his newspaper is treating the story. To me, this is the comment that exposes Acuña's real blind spot:

It's a straightforward discussion with a successful author peddling a new book on a subject most people find ludicrous.

There's no mystery about DuBois's claims or intent by the paper to portray her as something more than she is. Writing about her in this way doesn't give her more credibility, despite the criticism.

If you believe in this stuff, you will continue to believe. If you don't, you still won't.

You see, folks—just between smart people like you and me—only idiots take this sort of thing seriously. So it's okay to give it a “straightforward” presentation in the entertainment section of the newspaper, because the only folks who will be fooled by it are already imbeciles. In a follow-up comment to Acuña, I explained why I thought this was a really bad excuse:

What continues to bother me is the notion that The Bee is dishing out goo for its more gullible readers while giving a sly wink to those who aren't as credulous. “If you believe in this stuff, you will continue to believe. If you don't, you still won't.” The “this stuff” believers are beyond reach anyway, you say, so I guess it's okay to pander to their delusions about yet another financially successful psychic. What's the harm? We can ask that question again when the ill-informed go to thin-credentialed psychics instead of board-certified physicians for healing, but since we've given up on them, it's their own hard luck.

Acuña wrapped up his column on the DuBois controversy by contacting staff writer Pierleoni and giving him the opportunity to respond to the criticisms:

“The point of the piece was to interview an author who was touring for her new book,” explained Pierleoni....

“The critics want me to do an investigative piece to show that is a fraud or for me to challenge her and accuse her of being a fraud,” Pierleoni said. “But that's not the point of the piece.”

Pierleoni talked to DuBois for about 40 minutes and did a quick turnaround on the story. He said he was well aware of the skepticism about her claims and asked her in his story how she responds to the skeptics.

“She says I am what I am ... accept me for what I am or not,” he said. “I never said I believed or disbelieved. My concern was interviewing a woman who has made a good living doing what she does.” ...

“Skeptics,” he said, “they jump all over this stuff. And I wonder how many of the letter-writers have actually read the books.”

Hmm. Well, that sounds sort of fair. We should read her books with an open mind and then decide. Except that I prefer not to waste the time. Her supposed validation in a university's parapsychology lab has been thoroughly shot down. Why should we buy her books and enrich her purse when she and others like her (I'm looking at you, John Edward!) have never produced any reliable evidence of their abilities? I'm afraid that Acuña has a point when he says believers suck this up without question—but we doubters have ample reason for our doubts.

On the Friday after The Bee's publication of Acuña's column, I attended my usual end-of-week lunch group. It includes a number of retired Bee journalists, who teased me about getting blown off by their paper's public editor. The Bee's former book editor also contributed a telling observation: “Oh, Pierleoni? I know him. He's a believer!”

Hey, even without psychic powers I was picking up those vibes!

The real Ground Zero

x = 0 marks the spot

It's time for an episode of “Short Attention-Span History,” courtesy of the letters column in The Sacramento Bee. The city's mayor committed a grievously insensitive faux pas the other day. Or so some would have you believe.

From the June 17, 2006, Letters to the editor:

Respecting ground zero

Re “City OKs subsidy for K Street revival,” June 14: I was disappointed that Mayor Heather Fargo described the 700 block of K Street as the city's “ground zero.” We all know where ground zero is. As bad as we may think the 700 block of K street is, it could never compare to the real ground zero.

Kathleen Winkler, Sacramento

Nice try, Ms. Winkler, but those who cannot remember the past are condemned to distort it, as Santayana once almost said. Far be it from me to retard the secular sanctification of the World Trade Center site, but now that Ann Coulter has pointed out how much the 9/11 widows are enjoying and benefitting from the deaths of their spouses, perhaps we should rein in the genuflections. “Ground zero” is not a term specific to the atrocities of September 11. From Wikipedia:

Ground zero is the exact location on the ground where any explosion occurs. The term has often been associated with nuclear explosions, but is also used in relation to earthquakes, epidemics and other disasters to mark the point of the most severe damage or destruction. Damage gradually decreases with distance from this point....

The term was military slang—used at the Trinity site where the weapon tower for the first nuclear weapon was at point ‘zero’—and moved into general use very shortly after the end of World War II (see Manhattan project).

I'm thinking that perhaps people could find something more substantive over which to criticize Mayor Fargo than this instance of supposed insensitivity.