The dangers of evangelical fundamentalist Christianity

Fundamentalist Christians spend their entire lives trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. They believe in one “truth” and try to make every aspect of their lives fit that belief. Over time inconsistencies between their belief system and their observations multiply, so they learn to ignore the inner child that asks questions out of curiosity. Eventually the worldview of fundamentalist Christians becomes nothing more than faith and opinions rather than facts and evidence. Even worse, they fight personal and legal battles to convince others to act the same way, and increasingly their target is students in public schools.

As evidence mounts for natural rather than supernatural explanations, fundamentalist Christians in the U.S. have begun to feel threatened. In response they have attempted to change the evidence. Early attempts by “Creationists” to undermine the scientific theories of evolution and an “old” earth failed to meet the high standards of scientific evidence and sometimes amounted to fraud. Also, legal arguments for teaching creationism in public schools failed in the courtroom.

Fundamentalist Christians responded by rebranding creationism as “Intelligent Design,” but again their attempts to replace the teaching of evolution with Intelligent Design in public schools failed with the Dover, PA decision. Increasingly frustrated by the use of secular reasoning to reject religious arguments, fundamentalist Christians started to argue against the legal concept of Separation of Church and State that has been upheld for centuries in U.S. courtrooms. In their revisionist accounts of U.S. history they maintain that the Founding Fathers meant for the U.S. to be a “Christian Nation.” As a result they advocate for a theocracy to replace our current federal government. Imagine replacing the world’s leading model of democracy, perhaps the most successful government in history, with theocracies like those in the middle East, where society has regressed to the Middle Ages.

All of these fundamentalist Christian advocacy efforts take a great deal of time and money. Many spend their lives trying to reverse the tide of secularism they feel awash in. They ban books and boycott corporations and media outlets that don’t promote their worldview. They shelter their children from anything they consider profane by pulling them from sexual education classes, and in some cases forbidding them to socialize with anyone not in their church community, in essence making that community a cult.

Fundamentalist Christians were taught their beliefs at an early age, and they want these beliefs to be passed on to their children in school. They also recognize that the task would be easier if students were not shown any contradictory evidence. Thus, teachers in fundamentalist Christian schools teach their students only intelligent design but not evolution, religion but not science, and revisionist histories such as “Christian Nation” that are based on ideology rather than historical evidence. Furthermore, they discourage students from “questioning authority,” which robs students of the opportunity to develop critical thinking skills. Withholding evidence and discouraging students from thinking independently amounts to brainwashing. Furthermore, without developing skills such as independent, objective, critical thinking, fundamentalist Christian students will never contribute to the creation of new knowledge; they will simply parrot the religious dogma they have been spoon-fed their entire lives. Students should be taught how to think, not what to think.

And it’s not enough for evangelical Christians to indoctrinate their own children. They want every student, including those in public schools, to be taught religious doctrine rather than the tools of science such as logic. Currently there is a movement in Texas that is pressuring textbook publishers to include biblical references to figures such as Moses, even though there is no evidence of Moses’ existence outside the bible. And since Texas is one of the most populous states in the U.S., such changes would likely propagate into the textbooks purchased by schools throughout the U.S.. To extend this failed teaching paradigm to all children in the U.S. would be a disaster not only for us but for the entire world, as the U.S. is still the world leader in production of scientific knowledge, which has raised the standard of living for the millions of people who live in the developed world.

In summary, the fundamentalist Christian movement is an obstacle to scientific and social progress. Scientists and educators have to spend increasing amounts of time and money countering the inaccurate claims of fundamentalist Christians. They need help from the public, but the public first needs to recognize the threats posed by evangelical fundamentalist Christianity. Freedom of speech and of religion are at stake.

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Selfishness and lack of moral conviction in Tennessee State Legislature

Yesterday TN senators voted to not make pseudoephedrine HCl (Sudafed) a prescription drug because it would be inconvenient for consumers. Meanwhile this drug is used to illegally produce methamphetamine in Meth labs, an activity that leaves young children without parents and tears apart poor communities. Yet TN senators are unwilling to accept a minor inconvenience to help these children and their communities. This type of selfish behavior has become widespread, in part due to the influence of philosopher Ayn Rand, who taught that the moral purpose of life was to serve ourselves and make ourselves happy rather than to serve others, literally the antithesis of the teachings of Jesus Christ. These same conservatives glorify soldiers for their self-sacrifice in war, yet they are unwilling to make any sacrifice of their own in the war on drugs. The word hypocrisy comes to mind.

Meth is a drain on our countries’ resources. The cost to our police forces and judicial systems is great. The cost to poor communities is immeasurable. Every life lost to meth is the loss of a potentially productive member of society. Government should take every possible step to guard the wellbeing of children, even if those steps are “inconvenient,” because children are our future, and they can help keep our country strong.

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Living Sustainably: The Rule of Halves

You’ve probably heard hundreds of tips on how to live more sustainably. Who can remember all of those tips, or even worse remember to do what they say? And the prescriptions sound complicated and time consuming. Many people feel overwhelmed when considering how to reduce their ecological footprint, so they throw their hands up in despair and give up on sustainable living. Don’t despair! I have a simple guideline, a rule of thumb you can use to become twice as sustainable: cut everything you own and use in half! I call it the rule of halves. Move to a house half the size of your current house. Cut the number of cars in your family in half, and cut the size of your cars in half. Cut the number of miles you travel by car in half. Cut how much meat you eat in half. Buy energy star appliances that use half the electricity. Cut the size of your lawn in half. Cut the number of televisions in your house in half, the number of computers and printers in half, the amount of clothing in half. For most Americans these steps should be easy, because we currently have more of these things than we need. Don’t throw away what you give up: donate it for others to use. And abstain from buying more stuff to replace the stuff you get rid of: you won’t have room for it in your smaller house anyway. Soon you will realize that you don’t need all of that stuff, and that your life is more enjoyable because you spend half as much time shopping for and maintaining stuff. People in Europe and Japan have half the ecological footprint of Americans, yet they have the same level of wellbeing and are at least as happy.

So be proud of your small house and your small car! Small is beautiful. If you follow the rule of halves consistently you will cut your energy and material use, your ecological footprint, and your costs in half and make your lifestyle more sustainable.

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Does increasing taxes on the wealthy hurt the economy and lead to higher unemployment?

For years Republican politicians have claimed that increasing tax rates on the wealthiest, who are the “job creators,” will hurt the economy and lead to higher unemployment rates. I decided to test these claims by collecting evidence.

The claim that higher taxes on the wealthy hurts the economy was recently tested by Thomas L. Hungerford in a 2012 publication of the U.S. Congressional Research Service (“Taxes and the Economy: An Economic Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945″ CRS Report for Congress no. 7-5700 / R42729, http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/r42729_0917.pdf). Here is what he found: “There is not conclusive evidence, however, to substantiate a clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in the top tax rates and economic growth. Analysis of such data suggests the reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth. However, the top tax rate reductions appear to be associated with the increasing concentration of income at the top of the income distribution. The share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of U.S. families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% by 2007 before falling to 9.2% due to the 2007-2009 recession. The evidence does not suggest necessarily a relationship between tax policy with regard to the top tax rates and the size of the economic pie, but there may be a relationship to how the economic pie is sliced.” In other words, the only definite outcome of decreasing taxes on the wealthy is to increase economic inequality, which has been shown to cause a host of societal problems.

The figure below from the 2012 CRS report shows that there is no correlation between the top marginal tax rate and economic growth as measured by real per capita GDP growth rate:

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In a New York Times article published September 15, 2012, David Leonhardt (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/opinion/sunday/do-tax-cuts-lead-to-economic-growth.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0) asked “Do Tax Cuts Lead to Economic Growth?” and answered “no,” presenting this chart to support his conclusion:

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The chart clearly shows that the Bush tax cuts did not prevent the country from plunging into a deep recession. In fact there are many investments made by the federal government that are more effective than tax cuts at spurring economic growth, including funding of basic research, which leads to the development of new technologies for the market. For example, most of the technologies embedded in Apple’s popular IPhone originated in federally-funded research (see http://thebreakthrough.org/archive/american_innovation), as did the Google Search Engine, which was an outgrowth of a National Science Foundation grant to Stanford University. We conclude that there is no evidence that increasing taxes on the wealthy hurts the economy.

Now let’s address the second, related question: does raising the highest marginal tax rate lead to higher rates of unemployment? To answer this question I made a plot with highest marginal tax rate on the x-axis (independent variable, data from http://www.taxpolicycenter.org/taxfacts/Content/PDF/toprate_historical.pdf ) and average annual unemployment rate on the y-axis (dependent variable, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet).

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The chart shows that increasing income taxes on the wealthy does not increase unemployment; if anything, the unemployment rate goes down when tax rates on the wealthiest increase.

Many people don’t realize that tax rates on the wealthiest declined dramatically between 1945 and 1990, and declined further beginning in 1995 to the lowest levels on record in 2005 (see figure below).

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Yet recessions have repeatedly come and gone, as reflected in this chart from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showing unemployment rates since 1948:

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(from http://data.bls.gov/pdq/SurveyOutputServlet). The unemployment chart looks nothing like the previous chart of the highest marginal tax rate, indicating there is no correlation between the two.

So why do Republican politicians keep claiming that lowering taxes on the wealthy will create jobs and grow the economy? I don’t have data to objectively answer that question. I can only speculate that their motivation is political rather than economic: they receive large campaign contributions from wealthy donors who, in return, expect enactment of favorable tax policies.

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What is the root cause of denialism?

denialism (usually uncountable; plural denialisms)

  1. describes the position of those who reject propositions that are strongly supported by scientific or historical evidence and seek to influence policy processes and outcomes accordingly[1].

In recent years the messages of politically conservative groups in the US have become increasingly at odds with scientific findings. The latest example is the recent claim by US Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., that “legitimate rape,” in his words, rarely causes pregnancy. I initially thought this was a brain-addled individual making things up on the fly during a radio interview. However, I’ve since learned that this is the official position of American Right to Life, The American Family Association, and the Human Family Research Center, three anti-abortion groups (Dan Horn, “Science Suffering in the Debate Over Rape,” The Cincinnati Enquirer, 8/26/2012). The groups make this claim because they believe it will make it easier to pass legislation that bans abortion without exceptions for rape and incest, but the scientific evidence does not support their claim that rape is less likely to result in pregnancy. As in other current controversies involving social issues, conservative groups not only ignore scientific evidence when it doesn’t support their views, but make claims that are at odds with the evidence.

Increasing numbers of politically and religiously conservative groups are adopting this anti-science approach. The conservative John Birch society started the anti-Agenda 21 movement opposed to sustainable development and the anti-fluoridation campaign[2]. The Tea Party gave birth to the “Birthers” movement that claims President Obama is not a US citizen because he was born in Kenya, despite the overwhelming evidence that he was born in Hawaii. Currently the most important scientific claim that deniers dispute is that the Earth is warming due to release of the greenhouse gas CO2during burning of fossil fuels, again despite overwhelming evidence supporting this claim.

How did this all start? I believe that conservatives embarked on the slippery slope of denialism beginning with the Creationist movement that arose in response to the scientific theory of evolution. Motivated by their religious beliefs, which are rooted in a literal interpretation of the bible, fundamentalist Christians either passively choose to ignore evidence of evolution or actively fight to stop the teaching of evolution in public schools. It seems that once people become accustomed to denying evidence, they become increasingly adept at it. No amount of evidence will convince active climate change deniers that climate change is occurring. Based on my personal observations (I would love to see a study that tests this claim), it seems that most climate change deniers are politically conservative, fundamentalist Christians who also deny the reality of evolution. Such individuals will crow about scientific findings that support their views, but will ignore or attack findings that are at odds with their views rather than change their views. This dogmatic approach is rooted in political ideology. Recent studies suggest that the only way to persuade climate change deniers to adopt climate change mitigation measures such as cap and trade is to convince them that even if climate change claims are false, mitigation measures will have a positive effect on social welfare such as greater technological and economic development[3]. While this may treat the symptoms of denialism, it doesn’t address the causes. What can cure the disease of denialism? Effective teaching of evidence-based science in public schools is a start, but society needs to find new ways to stem the spread of denialism, which is making our country less competitive and harming future generations.


[1] http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/denialism

[2]The John Birch Society also opposed the civil rights movement and promotes claims that the UN is plotting to take over the world.

[3] http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n8/full/nclimate1532.html

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Does urbanization make a society more sustainable?

A recent iCreate Sustainability debate (http://www.icreate-sustainability.org/discussion/topic/show/559843) asked “Does Global Urbanization Lead Primarily to Undesirable Consequences?” In the “Yes” column is Environmental Magazine, whose writers “suggest that the world’s cities suffer from environmental ills, among them pollution, poverty, fresh water shortages, and disease.” So does urbanization increase or decrease levels of sustainability?

To answer this question we will use the ecological footprint, which is the best measure of sustainability. It is well known that cities have lower per-capita ecological footprints than suburban and rural areas. For example, citizens of Manhattan have the lowest ecological footprint in the U.S. (see Stewart Brand’s 2009 book “Whole Earth Discipline”). Environmental problems may appear to be caused by urbanization because the environmental impact of humans is concentrated in cities as a result of high population density. If urban residents migrated to rural areas, their aggregate environmental impact would be greater. However, their impact would be less obvious because it would be spread out over a larger area. The concentration of environmental impact in urban areas leads to the misconception that cities are the cause of negative environmental impacts.

One important unanswered question: Does urbanization lead to higher fertility? This question is important because overpopulation is one of the primary reasons we are currently in a state of global ecological overshoot. The 2010 World Bank report “Determinants and Consequences of High Fertility: A Synopsis of the Evidence” states “Fertility is almost always lower in urban as compared to rural areas.” (see http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTPRH/Resources/376374-1278599377733/Determinant62810PRINT.pdf). So the evidence is clear: urbanization slows population growth and decreases the per-capita ecological footprint. Together these reinforcing effects greatly slow the rate of growth of the environmental impact of societies over time.

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Ineffective Consumer Guides: Energy Star Labels

I’ve heard for several years that Wal-Mart was becoming more sustainable, but a purchase I just made makes me doubt that. I bought a Haier mini-fridge for my daughter’s college dorm. When I opened the box in her dorm I found the US EPA Energyguide label taped to the refrigerator, inside the box. The label showed that the fridge was at the high end of the cost range for similar models, meaning it is the least energy efficient. It bothers me that Wal-Mart is selling the most energy inefficient model, but it bothers me even more that the information was hidden inside the box. The label should be on the outside of the box so it can inform consumers; hiding it inside the box seems like a deliberate attempt to hide from the consumer that the fridge is not energy efficient. So who is at fault? Certainly Haier shares some blame for making such an energy-inefficient product and for placing the label inside the box. However, Wal-Mart sets the rules for their vendors, and their rules should include that the products they sell must be energy efficient, and that the Energyguide labels should be clearly displayed. Finally, the US EPA shares blame: their rules should require that the label be displayed outside the box or printed on the box.

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