Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Sense from the Right One of my readers has called this interesting website to my attention. It is maintained by Steven Dutch, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. His site contains a number of interesting articles on various aspects of science and pseudoscience. I particularly liked this brief article responding to the old creationist canard, “What good is half a wing?” The creationist idea is that if a structure is non-functional until it is fully assembled, then it could not have evolved gradually. Here's an excerpt:

One of the most common criticisms of evolution is the question "what good is half a wing?" Anti-evolutionists point out that organs must be functional at every stage of evolution, otherwise they wouldn't be selected, and therefore half-formed wings, eyes, and lungs are impossible.

One problem with this criticism is that it ignores exaptation, the adaptation of a trait originally developed for one function to some other function. But apart from exaptation, the criticism is completely false.

Actually, half-formed eyes and wings can be very useful. Any light-detecting ability, however rudimentary, will enable an organism to seek shelter, find food, and avoid predators. Similarly, half-formed wings aren?t as useless as often imagined. The idea that eyes and wings can only function if fully formed is completely false. Indeed, it?s a lot easier to see how partial versions of these organs could function than it is for many other organs. Creationists assume that problems in evolution are insoluble without making even the slightest attempt to see if solutions exist.

The reader who called this site to my attention points out that Mr. Dutch identifies himself as a political conservative. Since I am frequently critical of conservatives on this site, it is nice to have an opportunity to point out that “conservative” does not have to imply “anti-science”. It is only that strain of conservatism that demands that the Bible be taken as a source of scientific data, precisely the strain that holds so much power over the current administration, that is anti-science.

Mr. Dutch also has a large number of political articles at his site. There is quite a lot here I can't endorse, but his thoughts make for interesting reading. One place where we disagree is on the subject of public religious displays:

Religion is a powerful source in American society. Lots of people who can't fall out of bed on Sunday morning to get to church nevertheless get angry over attacks on religion. I suspect a lot of them think getting angry about religion counts as a substitute for actually practicing it.

So what in - pardon the language - God's name are liberals thinking when they support, or at least remain silent about, attacks on religion?

There is no such thing as a right to pretend something you oppose doesn't exist, and no such thing as a right to be shielded from the fact that most people reject your values. So nonbelievers simply do not have a right to live in a society free of religious sentiment. And public displays of religious sentiment - the Ten Commandments, Nativity sets in public parks, the phrase "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance - are a straightforward First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech, which is not, I believe, limited only to individuals. Government agencies and bodies have it too.

The public exercises of religion listed above involve an absolutely trivial expenditure of public resources and don't infringe on the rights of non-Christians in the slightest. Opposing these exercises is not about protecting the rights of the minority but about suppressing the rights of a majority, using the courts because opponents have failed to make their case on its merits.

But public displays of religious belief send an exclusionary message. Maybe. But the last time I checked, messages of all kinds were protected by the First Amendment. Even exclusionary ones. And if you find yourself being excluded, maybe you might even ask whether you're on the right side of the issues.

You'd feel differently if you were in the minority. I've spent a total of two years of my life in Islamic countries. If you're expecting me to buy into the idea that it's a violation of my rights to have the majority express a different religious sentiment, you have definitely picked the wrong person.

Absolutely nothing would blunt the power of the Religious Right by letting them have their public symbols. The last time they did, they were lulled into such a complete sense of complacency that the values shift of the Sixties caught them completely by surprise.

This quote comes from this article, entitled “Some Issues Where Liberals are Missing the Boat.

Mr. Dutch's analysis here is absurdly simplistic. No one has ever argued that we should have a society that is free of religious sentiment. No non-believer is asking to be shielded from the fact that most Americans believe in God. We ask only that the government not fund religious displays. You see, while the first amendment does talk about freedom of speech, it also talks about congress passing no law regarding an establishment of a religion. It is a long-standing principle of constitutional law that state and local governments must also respect such prohibitions. So the only question is whether religious displays on public land constitute an establishment of religion. I would argue that it does, and I have quite a lot of legal precedent on my side.

One thing that has always puzzled me is why so many Christians care so much about pacing nativity scenes on public land. Isn't it enough that they decorate their homes and churches? Any private business can decorate its facilities with any religious displays it likes. Why the government buildings? The only reason I can think of is that the people who support such things specifically want to send the message that they live in a Christian town. And that is precisely what the constitution forbids.

Anyway, have a look at the site and form your own conclusion. Sensible commentary on science, less sensible commentary on politics.


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