Cosmic Indifference

No one remembers the British humorist Jerome K. Jerome – few remember anyone who died in 1927, when dinosaurs roamed the earth – and he was a minor figure anyway. Oscar Wilde was a tough act to follow. No one out-quipped Wilde – but Jerome got off a few good ones, and the one Jerome quip that lives on is this – “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

That really is quite clever, but the odd thing is that it is transferable. Some of us feel that way about religion. Some Americans just shrug at the whole God thing and find the new “militant” atheism – Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens, and Bill Maher too – tiresome. There’s no point in yelling at people for believing the stupid and dangerous things they believe. They’ll just yell back at you for being stupid because you don’t believe the things that they believe. Neither side will budge. Each side is certain. Each side will eventually call the other side something worse than stupid. Those folks on the other side are dangerous, if not truly evil, and everyone remains angry, while a few of us remain indifferent, or agnostic to be specific about it, but fascinated. This is the sort of fascinating thing one could sit and look at for hours, or days, or years, or for 238 years, which is to say since we set up this new country.

That was going to be so easy. The new country would be secular. This government would answer to no pope or prelate or king claiming divine right – it would answer to the people, who would vote on what the government should or shouldn’t be doing at any given time, or at least elect people to vote on those things for them. There would be freedom of religion too. Anyone could believe what they wanted to believe, and the government was forbidden to establish an official state religion or favor one religion over another, even in minor matters. Government isn’t religion. Keep the two separate. Remember the more than one thousand years of religious wars in Europe. Don’t play with fire.

Sure, and ignore human nature. People do tend to become proud of what they believe, and that leads to them deciding that those who don’t believe what they believe must be stupid, or worse. The next step is deciding the government must do something about those stupid people, who are certainly dangerous. Can’t “the people” in a representative democracy vote on marginalizing those dangerous people, and then vote for what they think God has told them that He wants? He hates birth control, not just abortion, and hates gays, both depending on how you read certain passages in the Bible, and there is a clear biblical argument that slavery is a perfectly fine thing – and biblical arguments the other way.

That’s a problem. There’s no way to stop people from thinking these things, and deciding that if the government is the people’s government, the “people” can vote for the God-says-so stuff, and if there are of enough of such people, that God-says-so stuff should be the law. They can vote to ban gay marriage, and have, using that argument, and the courts have slowly come around to deciding that might be a bad idea. Everyone should have the right to live their lives as they see fit, and receive the same legal consideration as everyone else, in spite of someone else’s religious beliefs – but the last time that came up, with the Defense of Marriage Act and federal tax law, the decision to keep God out of such things was a split decision. Five of the nine Supreme Court justices are devout Catholics. It could have gone either way.

The Founding Fathers knew there was going to be trouble with this stuff. In fact, Thomas Jefferson tried to head it off:

In Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, he [Jefferson] clearly outlines the views which led him to play a leading role in the campaign to separate church and state and which culminated in the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom: “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. … Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others? That sounds so sensible, but now the argument is that being forced, by the new laws on standard healthcare plans, to provide birth control and family planning services in employee health plans, injures the owners of those businesses, forcing them to violate their religious beliefs, denying them their religious freedom. It’s the same with those who, on religious principle, refuse goods and services to gay folks, or maybe even black folks. Sure, the government has the right to regulate commerce, to keep it free and open and thriving, but it has no right to tell anyone engaged in commerce that their religious beliefs are flat-out wrong. The government is not supposed to take sides like that. The Founding Fathers said so.

Those matters are before the court at the moment, and then there’s that matter of reason and free enquiry. If your religion says believe things, on faith, and that reason and free enquiry are the tools of the devil, undermining the unquestioning acceptance of God’s word, then you might want to flight reason and free enquiry, tooth and nail, for God’s glory. You scoff at the notion of man-made climate change and say the scientific evidence means nothing, because science means nothing. There is faith. That will do – and the government can’t tell you you’re wrong. The government is supposed to stay out of such disputes.

Face it. Anyone on the outside, indifferent to the God stuff and tired of the new breed of angry atheists, would find this fascinating. It’s like watching a compilation of every movie train wreck ever filmed, endlessly inventive and oddly compelling, but it’s nothing new. There was that Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee, back in 1925 – the one where Clarence Darrow faced off against William Jennings Bryan on the matter of evolution, specifically on the issue of whether settled science can be taught in public schools, on the taxpayer’s dime, when that settled science seems, to some, to contradict the literal revealed “truth” in Bible. It was America’s first major trial where the religious folks claimed the right to restrict what others did because of their own personal religious beliefs – but it was their tax money that was funding the schools, after all. Still, it came down to arguing YOU can’t do THAT because WE believe THIS – an argument still being made today over the new government rules on what constitutes a minimally acceptable health plan and all the rest.

As for the past, Rachel Maddux in this odd item visits Dayton, Tennessee, to investigate the town’s annual Scopes Festival – yes, they never forget. No, scratch that. That trial wasn’t what you think:

The real story of the trial, like Dayton itself, began with the mines: they were dwindling, the town was suffering, and a group of local boosters – including drug store owner and school board president F. E. Robinson and school superintendent Walter White – were looking for a pick-me-up. Meanwhile, the fledgling ACLU was offering pro-bono legal representation for any teacher accused of breaking Tennessee’s recently passed Butler Act. Soon as the boosters got a whiff, they pounced. The trial was bound to be a big to-do somewhere, so why not Dayton? A willing defendant was found in John T. Scopes, a teacher and football coach at Rhea County Central High School. “I wasn’t sure if I had taught evolution,” Scopes wrote in his 1967 memoir. “Robinson and the others apparently weren’t concerned with this technicality. I had expressed willingness to stand trial. That was enough.”

This was tourism effort, and it still is. It also helped that William Jennings Bryan, who argued for the prosecution that the state was justified in keeping evolution out of schools, died there just five days after the verdict. That’s why Bryan College is there “for the purpose of establishing, conducting and perpetuating a university for the higher education of men and women under auspices distinctly Christian and spiritual, as a testimony to the supreme glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the Divine inspiration and infallibility of the Bible.”

They teach the infallibility of the Bible. To each his own, and good luck to their graduates in the job market, but all is not peachy there:

In February 2014, the statement of belief, which is included in the employment contract of professors, was modified to declare that Adam and Eve “are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life-forms.” Hundreds of students including the student body president criticized this change, several professors have left the institution, and two tenured faculty members who had their contracts terminated have filed a lawsuit against the college, which is scheduled to go to trial in May 2015.

Here we go again, but Maddux thinks the town won’t mind:

If Bryan hadn’t died here and made way for Bryan College, the town might have unraveled completely – the mines closed in 1930, just before the Great Depression rolled in. Dayton eventually came back as a manufacturing town, which it remains today, lately cultivating a sprawl of strip malls and chain stores. Bryan College hosts 1,300 students every year, or retains them – many are local and many more settle in Dayton after graduation to raise their own kids here. There are lakes and hills and woods all around, old coke ovens turned into nature preserves. Niche tourism is on the rise, so there’s even a chance the old boosters’ scheme might finally pay off. Coal isn’t the best source of metaphors for sustainable industry, but some things do need time to sit under great pressure before they can be of use. The Scopes Trial Museum, housed in the courthouse basement, brings in a few thousand visitors each year; in 2013, a few hundred attended the festival. Not quite Disney World, but it’s more appealing than blinkered silence.

All controversy is good controversy, but the folks in Dayton have competition:

“Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane recently took a beating at the box office and on the Internet for his vulgar Western comedy, “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but the controversial ex-Oscars host is responsible for one of 2014’s best surprises on television.

The existence of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” is almost inexplicable: A big-budget, hour-long science program hosted by a bona fide astrophysicist and airing in prime time alongside “The Simpsons.” MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” fortune helped fund the continuation of Carl Sagan’s 1980 PBS series, “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage,” spearheaded by Sagan’s widow, Ann Druyan, and host Neil deGrasse Tyson.

For 13 weeks, Tyson has taken viewers on a voyage through outer and inner space with gorgeous photography, feature-quality visual effects and animated segments overseen by Kara Vallow of “Family Guy” and “American Dad.”

Tyson is a gentle guide through the intimidating universe, though not one afraid of controversy; observers in the science world accused Tyson of inaccurately turning a 16th-century monk with dissenting ideas about the cosmos into a revered scientific hero, and Tyson touts many scientific facts that large portions of the American public do not accept as such.

But if you view “Cosmos” as a starting point for further research, or as a diverting, entertaining, nonessential science lesson, it’s a pure delight to watch.

That may be, but it’s turning into the new Scopes Trail. Sean McElwee explains:

The religious right has been freaking out about Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos” for what feels like an eternity. And, while the theological complaints seem laughable for their rancor and predictability, it’s time we thought harder about what they represent, because the Christian right’s “Cosmos” agita actually indicates a far deeper problem in religious conservatism – the selective acceptance of Enlightenment values…

The odd conflict of science and religion has come to define modern religious fundamentalism. While most religious people happily accept scientific theories about gravity, claims about the age of Earth are subject to a strange scrutiny by those who believe that the literary creation narratives in the Bible describe actual events.

The scientific consensus about global warming must be untrue, because, as Dr. Innes writes in “Left, Right and Christ,” the world is “not a glass ornament that we might accidentally destroy … we are not capable of destroying it, whether by nuclear weapons or carbon emissions.” Young earth creationism is the ultimate attempt to both accept modern science, but also to deny it. Fundamentalists like Ken Ham argue that the world and laws we currently observe simply bear no resemblance to the past.

It’s complicated:

The religious right cannot generally be found decrying freedom of speech or freedom of religion, instead they make a selective application of these values – much the way they’ll talk science when you question nuclear power but deny a consensus about evolution or global warming on entirely spurious grounds. …

What we see is an asymmetric illiberalism. The religious right and some portions of the conservative movement have hijacked Enlightenment values for selective use. A truly deep (almost dogmatic) commitment to free speech, say, that practiced by the ACLU, which will defend the right of neo-Nazis to protest, is not what we find in many conservative circles. Instead, we see an embrace of empiricism when it is good and a rejection when it is bad. We see an embrace of religious freedom for me, but not for thee.

That’s the Scopes Trial again, with minor flourishes:

As his Cosmos finale approaches, pop scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson sat down for Chris Mooney’s “Inquiring Minds” podcast to discuss the show and, at one point, slam Republicans for their majority belief that climate change either doesn’t exist or is not at all the result of human action.

“At some point, I don’t know how much energy they have to keep fighting it,” Tyson said of his opponents. “It’s an emergent scientific truth.”

He added that flat-out denying the science is bad politics. “The Republican Party, so many of its members are resistant to embracing the facts of climate change that the legislation that they should be eager to influence, they’re left outside the door. Because they think the debate is whether or not it’s happening, rather than what policy and legislation can serve their interests going forward.”

And there’s this:

During an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, President Obama admitted that he sometimes wishes he could express his irritation with congressional lawmakers who refuse to believe the science behind climate change.

Friedman asked the President if he ever wants to “just go off on the climate deniers in Congress.”

“Yeah, absolutely,” Obama responded. “Look, it’s frustrating when the science is in front of us. … We can argue about how. But let’s not argue about what’s going on. The science is compelling. … The baseline fact of climate change is not something we can afford to deny. And if you profess leadership in this country at this moment in our history, then you’ve got to recognize this is going to be one of the most significant long-term challenges, if not the most significant long-term challenge, that this country faces and that the planet faces.”

While the President seemed frustrated with some members of Congress’ refusal to support legislation that may help combat climate change he hopes that as public opinion evolves lawmakers will be forced to recognize global warming and its impacts.

“The good news is that the public may get out ahead of some of their politicians,” he said.

Neil deGrasse Tyson might be part of that, playing the role of Clarence Darrow in Dayton – the black Spencer Tracy of course – but something may be changing. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention saw its membership decline for the seventh year in a row, and Molly Worthen argues here that it might be time for them, and those like them, to forget the idea that “the churches that grow are the strictest, most demanding churches” that they can be:

If you step back and assess the big picture, few conservative churches are growing anymore (the Assemblies of God is, but by less than 2 percent per year). Evangelicals’ recent strategies – ranging from a hipster makeover to appeal to the millennial crowd to the mistaken hope that millions of Latinos are leaving Catholicism and becoming conservative Protestants – cannot hold off the world-historical forces of secularization. As the historian David Hollinger has argued, even if liberal churches have lost the battle for butts in the pews, the steady advance of civil rights, the sexual revolution, and gay liberation suggests that they are winning the wider culture.

You’ve probably heard that the United States has been the exception to the decline of organized religion in the developed West over the last 200 years, and that’s true. But American exceptionalism has merely delayed secularization, not halted it. Poll numbers – rising numbers of “nones” who say they have no religious affiliation; slowly falling rates of church attendance – suggest that even if Americans continue to believe that life has a supernatural dimension, many may be drifting out of institutionalized worship. Traditional religious organizations are losing their grip on the public sphere and their influence in the lives of individuals.

That happens, and Emma Green reports here that Southern Baptists aren’t responding to the news by rethinking their approach to an issue many believe are hurting them with young people – gay marriage. She quotes one of their big guns, Russell Moore, proclaiming “there is not space in Southern Baptist churches for someone who is unrepentantly engaged in homosexual conduct.” The same might go for anyone who watches Cosmos, and from two years ago:

Georgia Rep. Paul Broun said in videotaped remarks that evolution, embryology and the Big Bang theory are “lies straight from the pit of hell” meant to convince people that they do not need a savior.

The Republican lawmaker made those comments during a speech Sept. 27 at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell. Broun, a medical doctor, is running for reelection in November unopposed by Democrats.

Needless to say, he won. He’s back, but this is amusing:

Science educator Bill Nye questioned Broun’s ability to serve on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, stating, ‘”Since the economic future of the United States depends on our tradition of technological innovation, Representative Broun’s views are not in the national interest”‘ and that ‘”He is, by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.”‘

In response to Broun’s statements, in the 2012 general election, over 5,000 voters in the 10th District voted for Charles Darwin as a write-in candidate.

All this is fascinating. As that Jerome fellows says, one could sit and watch this sort of thing for hours, pleasantly detached from both sides here – or drop by and watch the May 2015 Bryan College trial in Dayton, Tennessee, where the issue is the biology of Adam and Eve. Fascinating! Or one could move to Jerome’s England, where they have an official state religion no one takes seriously in the slightest. No one has listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury since the days of Henry VIII – if then.

Wait! They somehow got it right. Jefferson would approve. Go figure.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Cosmic Indifference

  1. BabaO says:

    Jerome K. Jerome was a favorite writer of my mother’s. He wrote a small book titled “Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog.)” It is a kind of a 19th century prequel to Monty Python and Wodehouse. Somewhat oddly. it also became a basis for a rather good SciFi time-travel book in the 1990’s.

    The only way to deal with these tory religious monarchists is to take them to be amusing. Any other approach will lead down the same insane path they tread. Read Jerome’s little book and have some chuckles. It’s the only appropriate response to serious lunacy.

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