The U.S. Constitution is 100 Percent Secular—or Is It?

A novel focused on atheism and Christian apologeticsIn other blog posts, I’ve made the point that the secular U.S. Constitution prohibits the government from getting involved with religion, which makes the best environment for both atheists and Christians.  However, on several occasions, I’ve gotten pushback that the Constitution isn’t secular.

Let’s first consider a historic document that is easily seen to be religious, the Mayflower Compact (1620).  It’s quite short, and the majority of the body is here:

Having undertaken, for the Glory of God, and advancements of the Christian faith and honor of our King and Country, a voyage to plant the first colony in the Northern parts of Virginia, do by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic.

This is one of the documents that David Barton likes to use while bending history to take on his preconception of America as a Christian nation.  There are also several federal Thanksgiving declarations that acknowledge the Christian god.  For example, George Washington in 1789 created the first national Thanksgiving Day with this statement:

[Congress requests that the president] recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.

The constitution of the Confederate States (1861) was adopted with few changes from the U.S. Constitution, one being the addition of “invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God” in the preamble.

When we read the U.S. Constitution, this overtly Christian language isn’t there.  Neither is the vaguely deist language, as was present in the Declaration of Independence.  It’s 100% secular.  It’s not God making this constitution; it begins, in big letters, We the People.  In fact, Article 6 says in part, “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

But is it secular?  Some Christians assert that it’s not.  The first example is from Article 1:

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law.

In other words, it recognized Sunday as a holiday.  The second example is the wrapup in Article 7:

done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.

In other words, it replaces AD (Anno Domini—“in the year of our Lord”) with its English translation.

That’s it??  Those are the powerful counterexamples?  Compare this to the Mayflower Compact—a constitution with some balls that not only acknowledged God’s existence but said that the entire project was for his glory.

That Sunday was a holiday simply acknowledges the custom of the people of the time.  Spelling out AD and saying that this acknowledges Yahweh is like saying that the use of the names Thursday, Friday, and Saturday acknowledges the gods Thor, Frigg, and Saturn, respectively.  Or that the use of the names May and June acknowledges the Roman goddesses Maia and Juno.  “AD” is just another part of the same calendar.

The final irony is that “in the year of our Lord” isn’t even correct from a Christian standpoint.  The few clues we have of Jesus’s birth in the gospels make clear that he wasn’t born in the year 1 but probably around 5 BCE.

So, yes, the Constitution does reflect the customs and calendar of the people of the time.  But it’s still obviously and boldly secular.  And isn’t that the best for everyone who is governed by it?

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Word of the Day: Irreducible Complexity

A novel about Christian apologetics and atheismMicrobiologist Michael Behe coined the term “irreducible complexity” to describe a system in which every part is mandatory.  Here is his definition:

By irreducibly complex I mean a single system composed of several well-matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.1

Let’s look at a popular example, the remarkable bacterial flagellum.  Built of several dozen different proteins, this tiny motor with a whip-like appendage can propel a bacterium 60 cell lengths per second.  Compare this to the cheetah, the fastest land animal, which sprints at 25 body lengths per second.  (Here’s a good agenda-less video showing the structure of the flagellum.)

The irreducible complexity claim is this: imagine turning the clock of evolution back.  Which protein was the last to be put in place?  Remove any protein from the flagellum and it doesn’t function.  So if one step back in time from the working flagellum was something useless, no matter which protein you remove, why would evolution have created this thing?  Evolution doesn’t spend effort slowly building elaborate nonfunctioning appendages on the remote chance that with a few more mutations over 100,000 generations it might get lucky and create something useful.  But Intelligent Design comes to the rescue by postulating a Designer that put everything together all at once.

We can topple this thinking by considering an arch.  Which was the last stone to be put in place in an arch?  If you try to turn the clock back by removing the central keystone, the arch falls.  So that one couldn’t have been last.  But try removing any stone from the arch and the same thing happens.  This makes the arch irreducibly complex, using this Intelligent Design thinking, with a Designer levitating the stones into place all at once as the only explanation.

But of course this is nonsense.  If you imagine watching a movie of the building of an arch played backwards, the first change you’d see was not a stone removed but the last piece of scaffolding put into place.  Then the remainder of the scaffolding to support the stones, then the stones removed one at a time, and then the scaffolding removed.

In the same way, the step that preceded the bacterial flagellum might have been the removal of an unnecessary piece of scaffolding.

There is much more to say about why the idea of irreducible complexity has not won over the science of biology, including attacks on how good an example the flagellum is of irreducible complexity, but that is a tangent for this post.  For more on this topic, check out the links below.

Science may well have unanswered questions regarding the origin of the flagellum, but “I don’t know” is no reason to invent a Designer.  And you can be sure that once the origin of the bacterial flagellum is sufficiently well understood, this argument will be discarded like a used tissue and some other complex feature of biology (and there’s always something) will be seized upon by the Intelligent Design advocate as the wooden stake that will finally destroy the monster that is evolution.

If the past is any indication, our ID friend will have a very long wait.

1 Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box (Touchstone, 1996), p. 39.

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16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals (Part 2)

Atheism and Christianity discussionHere are the remaining arguments against abortion, with rebuttals. See part 1 here.

10. Why is murder wrong? Because it takes away a future like mine. If we found intelligent humanoids like us on another planet, killing them for sport would be wrong for this reason. And this is why abortion is wrong—it takes away a future like mine. This is Glenn Peoples’ Argument from the Future (podcast episode #29, 8/3/09).

Why focus on the future? Assuming these humanoids are largely unchanging month to month, like people, killing them for sport takes away a present like mine. I assume that Peoples focuses on the future only because he has no argument otherwise.

But let’s take the path that Peoples points us to. Killing a fetus would deprive it of a future like mine, but so would killing a single skin cell, once they are clonable into humans. Would it then a crime to scratch your skin? Or, let’s take it further back. Suppose I have two kids. Was it criminal to not have three? Or four? Or fifteen? I’ve deprived those people-to-be of life.

Extrapolating back to the twinkle in my eye, saying that we have a person deserving of life at every step is ridiculous. But the facts fit neatly and logically into the spectrum argument.

11. But a fetus has a soul! Does it? If the zygote has a soul and then it splits into twins, does each twin have half a soul or do they get another one as needed or did they get two to begin with? What about conjoined twins? Do they share a single soul like a shared body part? What about babies with terrible birth defects that leave them with very little brain function? What about a person cloned from a cell—would they have a soul? And if the story for the soul has a happy ending for the 50% of pregnancies that end in spontaneous (natural) abortion, why not for an artificial abortion?

This mess vanishes if we don’t insist on a soul. As Daniel Dennett said, “What isn’t there doesn’t have to be explained.”

12. “Abortion is much more serious than killing an adult. An adult may or may not be an innocent, but an unborn child is most definitely innocent.” These are the words of an archbishop from Brazil. He was outraged at the abortion done on a nine-year-old girl, raped and impregnated by her stepfather. In response to the abortion, the church excommunicated the family of the girl and the doctors who performed the abortion.

Wow. Let’s leave this example of how religion makes you do crazy things and focus on the claim. First, a fetus is not a child. Second, the spectrum argument defeats this claim.

Variations on this argument are popular, and they all have pretty much the same response. Here are a few.

12a. Abortion kills a human life (at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy) to help with another human’s self-actualization (higher on the hierarchy). That’s the opposite of the way it’s supposed to work. The two “human lives” are not comparable. This ignores the spectrum of development from single cell to trillion-cell newborn.

Killing a blastocyst with fewer cells than the brain of the fly troubles me less than killing a civilian in another country due to war or killing a criminal on death row.

12b. Don’t we normally go out of our way to defend the defenseless? Again, this ignores the spectrum. Defenseless people are more important than defenseless cells.

12c. Haven’t we been through this with racial minorities? Declaring that single cells aren’t human is like declaring that African-Americans aren’t human. Nice try. Spectrum argument.

12d. In response to your abortion clinic example: you argue that, if given a choice between saving a child and ten frozen embryos, you’d save the child. Okay, and if given the choice between your wife and a stranger, you’d save your wife, but that doesn’t mean that you can kill strangers. Spectrum argument.

13. Haven’t you heard of adoption? That’s the answer to an unplanned pregnancy. No, it’s clearly not the answer. Two percent of all births to unmarried women in the U.S. are placed for adoption. “Just have the baby and release it for adoption” is a pat on the head. It might make you feel good, but it doesn’t work.

14. You say that a trillion cells is definitely a person. Okay, how about a trillion minus one—is that a person? And if so, how about a trillion minus two? And so on. This same game could be played with the blue/green spectrum. If this color is “green,” what about just a touch more blue—isn’t that green as well? The point remains that the two ends of the spectrum are very different—green is not blue! Similarly, a single cell is not a newborn with arms, legs, kidneys, brain, and so on.

15. The woman who got pregnant knew what she was doing. Let’s encourage people to take responsibility for their actions. She didn’t necessarily know what she was doing—sex education is so poor that many teens become sexually mature without understanding what causes what.

But let’s assume that the woman knew what she was doing and was careless or stupid. What do we do with this? When someone shoots himself accidentally, that was stupid, but we all pay for the medical and insurance system that puts them back together. Let’s educate people, demand responsibility, and have a harm-reduction approach where we find the best resolution of problem. For a woman whose life would be overturned with a pregnancy, that resolution might be abortion.

16. If you’re so smart, where do you draw the line? I don’t. I find that pro-life advocates quickly turn the conversation to the definition of the OK/not-OK line for abortion, hoping to find something to criticize. I avoid this, both because it diverts attention from the spectrum argument—the main point I want to make—and because I have no opinion about the line and am happy to leave it up to the experts.

Barack Obama answered that question, “That’s above my pay grade,” which satisfies me, since he was running for Commander-in-chief, not Obstetrician-in-chief.

Next time: 5 Recommendations to the Pro-Life Movement

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Post #100

Using fiction to explore Christianity and atheismWelcome to post #100!  It’s time to see how far this blog has come since I started last August.

Many of you know that this is actually two blogs.  Galileo Unchained (“For Those Who Have No Use for Faith”) is the doorway aimed at atheists, and Cross Examined (“Clear Thinking About Christianity”) is aimed at Christians.  The content is the same, so hang out wherever you feel more comfortable.

In December, I launched my novel, Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey.  My goal with both the book and this blog is primarily to encourage Christians to think.  Whether they become atheists or stronger Christians isn’t the issue but rather that they think about the intellectual foundations that support their faith.  Too commonly, in my opinion, Christians act out their faith on autopilot, not thinking much about what they claim is life’s most important issue.

And, of course, I hope to have provocative content for atheists as well, both in this blog in the book.

If you haven’t poked around in the toolbar, that’s been gradually updated, with a page listing all the posts, a glossary (with each of the Words of the Day), and a summary of the book with the first couple of chapters.

Here are some of the stats for the blogs:

Alexa ranks web sites by global popularity, and a smaller number is better.  It says that 0.00034% of global Internet users visit CrossExaminedBlog.com.  (Woo hoo—look out, PZ Myers!)

There’s no easy way to figure out word count, but all the posts add up to roughly 50,000 words.

So what’s next?  I’m thinking about podcasting the blogs.  That is, the same content, just spoken.  I hope that will provide a new audience.  I’m also thinking about consolidating the blogs, which would mean focusing on Cross Examined and no longer updating or creating links to Galileo Unchained.  (Your thoughts on these changes?)

Here’s where I need your help.

  • Who do you think would find the book useful?  Do you know of any thoughtful Christians comfortable enough in their beliefs who would be interested in exploring the foundations of Christianity?  Please pass on a link.  I’m also looking for blurbs (brief recommendations), so let me know of anyone with interesting credentials—a pastor or professor, perhaps—who might share my goal of encouraging Christians to think and who would like a free review copy.
  • Who would find the blog interesting?  Please recommend it to anyone you think would appreciate plain talk on Christianity.
  • What recommendations do you have for the blog?  Any changes in format?  Topics ideas?  Add your thoughts to the comments below or email me.

Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you find this a worthwhile destination on the internet!

Bob Seidensticker

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Why is it Always Men Advancing the Pro-Life Position?

Christian apologetics and atheism meet hereIt’s Blog for Choice Day!

On this, the 39th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision making abortion legal in the U.S., Pro-Choice America (NARAL) asks, What will you do to help elect pro-choice candidates in 2012?

I will make it easier to be a pro-choice politician by spreading the word about the sensible arguments in favor of the pro-choice position.  My approach has been to post this series of articles on this topic.

Today let’s ask why it’s always men advancing the pro-life position.  It does seem unfair that the gender that isn’t personally inconvenienced by pregnancy is the one pushing the restrictions.  (Okay—it’s not always men who are the vocal pro-life advocates, but it often seems that way.)

I remember a podcast by a popular Christian apologist during which a woman caller asked this question.  The apologist (a man) seemed annoyed.  He said that murder was murder.  (I argue that abortion isn’t murder.)

More to the point, he said that his moral opinion was relevant regardless of his gender.  I’ll agree with that, as far as it goes.  But I think that the woman had an important point that is rarely acknowledged, since only a woman can have an abortion.

Let me try to create a symmetric male-only example.  This apologist is of the age where he might have been in the draft pool during the Vietnam War.  So let’s suppose it’s 1970, and this guy comes back from a tour fighting in Vietnam.  Readjusting to life in America is tough, and he has nightmares and other symptoms of what we now call PTSD.  His wife is sympathetic and, after some prodding, he shares the problem with her.

“Oh, you should go see Dr. Jones about that,” she says.  “I’m part of a community of veterans’ wives, and I’ve heard all about that.  He does wonders with returning soldiers, and he’ll fix you up in no time.”

Our hero hesitates, not comfortable discussing his demons with a stranger.  “I don’t think so.”

“No, really.  I’ve heard a lot about this, and that treatment should work for you.”

Tension increases as they go back and forth.  Finally, he says, “Honey, I really appreciate your sympathy.  I know you want to help.  But you must understand that you will never, ever understand what I’ve been through.  Put in 18 months in Vietnam and then we’ll have something to talk about.  Until then, you really don’t get it.”

Similarly, our 60-something male apologist will never, ever completely understand what it’s like to be 15 and pregnant, faced with disapproving parents and ridicule from classmates and pro-lifers shouting “murder!” at the suggestion of an abortion, wondering how she’s ever going to get her life back on track.

If the male apologist wants to comment on the topic, that’s fine, but a big dose of humility (and sympathy) would make his position easier to take.

Next time: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals (Part 2)

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16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals

What would an atheist think of Christians in favor of this?I’ve argued the pro-choice position with Christians, and I’ve gotten a lot of responses to my arguments.  Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard, with my rebuttals.

1. The Bible says that abortion is wrong.  As I’ve argued before, it doesn’t and God has no problem killing people, including children.  The Bible is a poor justification for the argument that killing is wrong.

2. Abortion tinkers with the natural order.  We have cheerfully adopted medicine and technology that “tinkers with the natural order”—antibiotics, vaccines, and anesthesia, for example—to which we don’t give a second thought.  We prolong life beyond what the “natural order” would permit and allow it to happen where it otherwise wouldn’t (in vitro fertilization, for example).  Abortion might be bad, but that it changes the natural order is no argument.

3. You argue that a newborn has more cells than the zygote that it started from.  Is this just a size thing?  What about someone who’s lost a limb?  Or had tonsils, appendix, or gall bladder removed?  Are they less of a person?  The difference between an amputee and a newborn is trivial compared to that between the newborn and the single cell.  In the long list of organs, limbs, and systems, this amputee has one fewer.  Compare that with a single cell, which has none of those body parts!

We can push this thinking to the ridiculous.  Imagine technology that provides life support so that a human head could survive.  Is this less of a person?

Well, yeah—obviously.  Someone who’s been reduced to just a head isn’t as much of a person as they were.  Or consider Terry Shiavo, who was allowed to die after 15 years in a vegetative state.  Was she less of a person?  Her severe brain damage certainly made her less of something, and you can label this whatever you want.

4. Imagine that you’d been aborted!  I wouldn’t care, would I?

5. Imagine that you had two planned kids, and then you had a child after an unplanned pregnancy.  You wouldn’t want to give that child up.  But if you’d aborted it, your life would be emptier.  Of course I’d love my unplanned child as much as my other ones.  But what do we conclude from this?  That I should have not had two kids but rather three?  Or five?  Or fifteen?  Should I expect some tsk-ing behind my back as neighbors wonder why my wife and I could have been so callous to have not has as many as biology would permit?

By similar logic, is a woman’s menstrual cycle a cause for lamentation because that was a missed opportunity for a child?  It is a sign of a potential life, lost.  But in any life, there are millions of paths not taken.  C’est la vie.

I don’t think it’s immoral to limit the number of children you have, and I don’t see much difference between zero cells and one cell—it’s all part of the spectrum.  I’ll agree that the thought “Let’s have a baby” isn’t a baby … but then neither is a single cell.

6. What’s the big deal about traveling down the birth canal?  The big deal is that before that process, only the mother could support the baby.  Afterwards, it breathes and eats on its own.  The baby could then be taken away and never see its mother again and grow up quite healthy.  Before, the mother was essential; after, she’s unnecessary.

I’m not arguing that abortion should be legal up until delivery.  In fact, I’m not arguing for any definition of when abortion should become illegal.  My main point has simply been that the personhood of the fetus increases from single cell through newborn, which makes abortion arguable.

7. It’s a human from conception through adulthood!  The DNA doesn’t change.  What else would that single cell be—a sponge?  A zebra?  OK, if you don’t like “human,” let’s use “person.”  No—person means the same thing as human!

This name game is a common way to avoid the issue.  I don’t care what you call the spectrum as long as we use names that make clear what the newborn has that the single cell doesn’t.

8. What if the mother wanted to abort because the fetus had green eyes or was female or would likely be gay?  This is a red herring.  How many cases are we talking about?  Abortion to increase the fraction of male babies is done in India and China, but this isn’t a factor in the U.S.

Abortions for capricious or shallow reasons also aren’t the issue.  Mothers-to-be have plenty of noble instincts to judge what is appropriate so that society can rest assured that the right thing will usually be done.  (If you balk at the “usually,” remember that that’s how society’s laws work.  They’re not perfect, and we can only hope that they’re usually on target.)  We can certainly talk about the few special cases where a woman’s actions seem petty, but don’t let that change abortion rights for the majority.

The woman who aborts for some trivial reason would likely be a terrible mother.  Let’s let a woman who isn’t mature enough to take care of a baby opt out.

9. Abortions are dangerous!  Not really.  The chance of maternal death from delivering a baby is 12 times higher than through abortion.  This is just what you’d expect, since the fetus only gets bigger (and more dangerous to deliver) with time.  Of course, this statistic will change if abortion is made illegal and more dangerous.

There is no indication that abortion is a risk factor for cancer or women’s mental health.

Next time: Why is it Always Men Advancing the Pro-Life Position?

Part 2: 16 Arguments Against Abortion, with Rebuttals (part 2)

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