Friday, November 25, 2011

I am thankful for the First Amendment

We spent Thanksgiving with friends. As part of the traditional ritual, we were asked to make a list of four things for which we were thankful. My first two items, family and friends, were universal amongst the members of our group. Additional reflection made me realize that I was thankful for the U.S. constitution, and in particular, for the first amendment, which states,

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

These marvelous words should be read by all who are not outraged by current events.

The first ten amendments, or the Bill of Rights, are the handiwork of James Madison. There is much misinformation about the original intent of the framers of the US Constitution, which can be clarified by reading the original articles and letters written by the founding fathers. On the topic of separation of church and state, Madison clearly believed that government should stay out of religion, period.

In Annals of Congress (Annals of Congress, Sat Aug 15th, 1789 pages 730 - 731), he summarized his position as follows:

Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform.

In a letter to Robert Walsh on March 2, 1819, he expresses his view that a wall between government and religion leads to increased morality:

The civil Government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability, and performs its functions with complete success, whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State.

In a letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822, he writes,

Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.

In a letter to Baptist Churches in North Carolina, June 3, 1811, he responded to the use of public ground for religious purposes,

To the Baptist Churches on Neal's Greek on Black Creek, North Carolina I have received, fellow-citizens, your address, approving my objection to the Bill containing a grant of public land to the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, Mississippi Territory. Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself.

In vetoing this bill from the House of Representatives, he stated:

Having examined and considered the bill entitled "An act for the relief of Richard Tervin, William Coleman, Edwin Lewis, Samuel Mims, Joseph Wilson, and the Baptist Church at Salem Meeting House, in the Mississippi Territory, " I now return the same to the House of Representatives, in which it originated, with the following objection:

Because the bill in reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of said Baptist Church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment."

Our founding fathers were truly deep thinkers who understood the perils of mixing religion with government. The establishment clause along with the right to free speech and peaceful protest are the foundations of a civil, prosperous and moral society. We all need to relearn what was obvious to the framers of the US Constitution.

For additional information, see, and for additional information.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Compairing faith in science to faith in religion

Some people argue that scientists have faith in science and that this is no different than faith in religion. Individuals, the argument goes, decide apriori what they accept and thus a scientist's claim to the truth is equivalent to the claims of a member of the clergy.

Psychologist Jonathan C. Smith addresses this argument in the January/February 2011 issue of Skeptical Inquirer. Here, I expand on Smith's argument, as follows.

Faith is characterized by the method used to vet beliefs. A scientist's "belief" in science is based on his or her confidence in the scientific method as a way to eliminate false hypotheses using objective evidence. On the other hand, no matter the religion of the observer -- be it a Muslim, Christian, Jew, or Hindu -- a religious person accepts subjective experiences and feelings as legitimate elements in the process for arriving at the truth. If the truth so derived contradicts science, the religious person argues it unfair for the scientist to claim superiority since each method is accepted on the basis of the beholder's "opinion;" and, all opinions are equally valid. However, the argument cannot stop there.

The believer in the scientific method, by virtue of his or her belief, is compelled to accept all that has been learned through the scientific method. Similarly, a person who accepts religion through subjective experience is obligated to accept all that follows from the process of subjective reasoning, and thus to accept all religions, cults, etc. as legitimate. Those who claim other religions to be false are impugning the very method that is claimed to be legitimate.

Science leads to a single truth. Religions, on the other hand, often contradict scientific truths as well as each other. This is perhaps the origin of the notion that there can be many truths. Diverse beliefs can harmoniously coexist only when individuals of contradictory views don't impose their beliefs on each other.

In conclusion, truths derived from science and religion are not equivalent because the scientific method leads to consensus while religion leads to contradictions that lead to disagreement and conflict. In the final analysis, religious individuals who do not accept all other religions with equal respect are hypocrites by virtue of the fact they place their own opinions above all others who have arrived at their truth in the same way. The objectivity of science is immune to hypocrisy because it minimizes subjectivity. When science seems to fail us, it can always be traced to a dose of subjectivity on the part of the researcher.