Wednesday, November 17, 2004

The Unenlightened Jesus Freaks

Garry Wills, in one of the many public displays of blue state animus, speaks of America as being Unenlightened, more willing to believe in the virgin birth than the Darwinian rise of man through evolution. Putting aside the argument over the existence or non-existence of a creator, the smug assumption implicit in such indictments is that an enlightened society, susceptible to the cold logic and reason of science, is somehow a better and more humane society. That implicit assumption enjoys very little historical support.

Consider a few examples of the enlightened scientific view being at odds with a humane view of society.

* A Civic Biology, a state-approved textbook that John Scopes (he of the famous Scopes Monkey Trial) used as a substitute biology teacher, had this to say of epileptics, the mentally ill, and other unwanted types: “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of … preventing intermarriage and the possibility of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” Yes, yes - you shouldn't prevent anyone from teaching that truth to your kids! It is not the fault of the enlightened that some might (and did) use similar logic to enslave blacks, kill Jews, and beat homosexuals.

* Justice Holmes, not long after the Scopes trial, would sanction the court-ordered sterilization of “a feeble minded white woman,” explaining that “society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind … Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In the case of the Kennedy family, I could not agree more. Just look at Patrick Kennedy .

* And from Thomas Sowell's excellent book Knowledge and Decisions we learn that, back in the first half of the American century, "leading IQ experts were also members of eugenics societies devoted to preventing the reproduction of “inferior” stocks. However, the political impossibility “at present” of convincing “society” that low I.Q. groups “should not be allowed to reproduce” made the “experts” predict a “decline in American intelligence “ over time.

As Sowell explains: "These were not views of the village racist. They were the conclusions of the top contemporary authorities in the field, based on masses of statistical data, and virtually unchallenged either intellectually, morally, or politically within the profession at the time. Controversies raged between the “experts” and others – notably Walter Lippman – but such critic’s conclusions were contemptuously dismissed as “sentiment and opinion” as contrasted with the “quantitative methods” of the new science."

Sowell sees the IQ experts affinity for eugenics as representative of a broader pattern: "In many ways this episode illustrates far more general characteristics of the intellectual-political “relevance”: 1) the almost casual ease with which vast expansions of the amount and scope of government power to be used against their fellow citizens and fellow human beings, for the purpose of implementing the intellectuals’ vision, 2) the automatic presumption that differences between the current views of the relevant intellectuals and the views of others reflect only the misguided ignorance of the latter, who are to be either “educated”, dismissed, or discredited, rather than being argued with directly… 3) the implicit faith that the current views of the “experts” represented the objective, inescapable conclusions of scientific evidence and logic, … rather than either the vogues or the professional self-interest of these “experts”..

To be sure, certain religious beliefs are not necessarily conducive to peaceful relations with one's neighbors. In fact, if Wills would open up his eyes, he might see that the unenlightened red-staters voted to stick with a guy who is not naive about the threat we face from people who consider killing an infidel a humane act that saves the said infidel from further ruining his chances to be united with Allah. Of the current conflagarations and wars raging in all of the corners of the world, which by one persons count was near 30 about two years ago, only one did not involve Moslems as at least one of the two combatants.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


Having worked in academia for the last 12 years, most of my co-workers are either atheists or not very active believers. I can assure you that the nonbelievers I have met are in general nice folks who do not promote eugenics or the other nasty things you list below.

As perhaps the only resident of a red state on your email list (folks who live in the Virginia suburbs of DC don't really count), I am exposed to a higher dose of "Jesus" than your average reader. In my view, the superstition of our day does little to damage polite society. I have met numerous believers who are fine people that I have enjoyed interacting with.

However, my casual observation is that in general, there is a downward sloping frontier between the amount of "Jesus" in the cities I have lived in and:

1. tolerance for diverse ideas
2. the availability and quality of cultural ameneties (e.g. good universities, good theatres, the arts, etc...)
3. sympathy for the less fortunate members of society.
4. income and levels of education are lower

Whether this is causation or correlation I do not know. However, I (strongly) conjecture that if I ran a cross city housing hedonic, all else held fixed, the implicit price of the density of religion would come in as negative- or at least the density of nonbelievers would come in as positive. This is creatainly true in every city where I have lived.

If the market values religious fervor of one's neighbors as a disamenity, I think this would tell us something about the externalities created by having many highly religioius people as neighbors.


6:32 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

I clearly am not of the opinion that religion shields one from beastly views, but I am also not of the opinion that irreligion does either. I'd take my chances as an atheist in a theocracy over being a devout believer in a Communist regime.

You know, I've always felt that the 20th Century dwarfed all previous ones with respect to barbarity, and none of those wars was fought over religion. And even outside of the wars, the 20th century stands out for the vast number of innocents who were killed by their own secular communist government. The Black of Book of communism puts the number at about 100 million.

That said, I was shocked when I read in The Blank Slate, by Steven Pinker (a good scientific read), that anthropologists estimate the mortality rates for pre-civilized tribal communities via armed conflict to be far far greater than anything we saw in the 20th century. I think that research runs counter to what many people would have guessed.

So Pat, when you run your hedonic regression, make sure to capture the effect of living in a population dense with noble savages.

6:50 AM  
Blogger John Wolfram said...

I am from a red state and I offer the following wholly unrelated points between running regressions for fun.

1. Here in the south, we pulled hard for W, close for Jim Bunning (listen up Phillies fans), and very very very hard for a gay-marriage ban amendment to the KY constitution. There is a big Baptist, Catholic, and evangelical Christian presence in the Bluegrass, along with a healthy dose of provincial thinking and a pinch of fear, that voiced its opinion at the polls in ways firmly rooted in religious beliefs.

2. I found a sick irony in this point: yesterday I heard that as many as 3 people had died as a result of complications arising from taking RU-486, the "abortion pill" and that as a result the FDA was going to require the pill manufacturer to clarify the warning label on the pill bottle. What would Mr. Wills have to say about this -- that while our society aborted over a million babies a year, we had three adults die, thus we must protect against having that number increase to four, and as a result we are a better and more humane society as a result?

PS I was kidding about running regressions for fun

3:17 PM  

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