Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Reply to Critics of <i>Icons</i>

We noted a week or so ago that Intelligent Design: The Future was posting Jonathan Wells' response to critics of his book Icons of Evolution. Parts 1 through 5 are now up and can be read here.

On the subject of ID has a great selection of apparel with Intelligent Design motifs. Check it out here. Click on Browse Designs in the left margin for other offerings.

Sex and Christmas

Carol Platt Liebeau raises a pertinent question about our attitudes toward sex and religion in public places:

One of the most difficult tasks of a democracy is deciding which messages are suitable for universal consumption in the public square - especially when it comes to sex and religion.

Americans are bombarded with sexual images year-round. In October, Victoria's Secret introduced mall floor displays, titled "Backstage Sexy," featuring bare-bottomed mannequins in provocative poses and suggestions of bondage. Billboards advertising sex shops, strip shows and "gentlemen's clubs" appear alongside highways. Women's magazines at checkout counters offer graphic sex tips. Television is rife with innuendo and more. The FM airwaves are saturated with musical paeans to lust. When it comes to sex in the public square, envelope-pushing is the order of the day.

The graphic images, sights and sounds offend many religious, cultural or social conservative Americans. Some even voice outrage, but to little lasting effect.

That's because American "tastemakers" - elites in the media and the courts - have shaped a libertarian social consensus. That an advertising campaign, television program or song transgresses traditionalist values is irrelevant. Americans have decided, for better or worse, that one group's sensitivities cannot govern what is available to others. The traditionalists must avert their eyes from what offends them lest their sensibilities infringe on others' freedom of expression.

Contrast the treatment of sex in the public square with that of religion. A 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas. About 90% recognize Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ, according to a 2000 Gallup poll. These are substantial majorities, larger than the number of citizens who feel proud to be American (84%), higher than support for the war on terror only five months after Sept. 11, 2001 (93%), and greater than the percentage of Americans who believed that Elvis Presley was dead as of 2002 (88%).

Even so, in recent years, people who want to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday avoid overtly religious allusions in the public square, lest a stray reference to the birth of Jesus somehow offend either nonbelievers or non-Christians.

The result has been a strait-laced self-censorship that would be derided were it applied to matters of sex rather than faith: Last year, a mayor in Massachusetts apologized for having identified the city's "holiday party" as a "Christmas party." In Denver, a religiously themed float was barred from participating in the city's December "parade of lights."

This year, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino briefly considered renaming the city's Christmas tree - an annual gift from Nova Scotia since 1917 - as a "holiday tree." Retail clerks are instructed to wish their customers "Happy Holidays" or to offer "Season's Greetings." Seasonal music on the radio is merrily (and almost exclusively) secular - much more "Frosty the Snowman" than "Joy to the World." Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus have supplanted angels, wise men - and, of course, the baby Jesus - as Christmas' most visible icons. Would anyone be surprised to hear a modern classic reissued as "Rocking Around the Multicultural Celebration Tree"?

All these measures spring from a laudable aversion to giving offense, and the impulse that prompts them is a tribute to the nation's history of religious tolerance. But nonbelievers or non-Christians are not being forced to celebrate Christmas (much less profess belief in Jesus' divinity). So it's worth wondering: In a nation founded on religious principles, why should spiritual messages be tailored to the sensitivities of nonbelievers, while sexual messages are not similarly constrained for the sensibilities of traditionalists?

If there's a standard for deciding what content is appropriate for the public square, surely it should be uniformly applied. At the very least, we should rethink a status quo that presumes religious messages will elicit the kind of indignation once reserved for the crude sexual messages that pass without comment (or censure) today.

Liebeau makes an interesting point here. If a traditionalist takes umbrage at the hyper-sexualization of our public spaces he or she is called a prude and told to just not look. Advertisers, shock jocks, and television studios have the right to free speech, and if you don't like it, that's tough, just don't listen.

Yet many of these same intrepid champions of libertarian morality grow suddenly meek and timid when it comes to offending anyone who might be a dissenter from the majority view of Christmas. We need to be inclusive, they say. We need to make everyone feel welcome in our malls, they insist. We can't turn people off to the products we advertise by inserting a religious message, we're told. No, we suppose not. We can place billboards in the public square that tell our young people that sex (or alcohol, or both) are great ways to spend the holidays, but we'd never dream of insulting the gods of secularism by displaying religious symbols or music in our stores at Christmas time. Wrong message. Bad for business. Don't want to offend. Separation of Church and commerce, or something.

We suggest that Christians might take a page from the secularist playbook. When next we are asked what we plan to do over the holidays we should reply that, well, among other things we intend to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. If our interlocutor winces at the brazen vulgarity of our plans we should simply reply, hey, if you don't like what I say then don't listen to me say it.

The Worst Idea Ever

Sometimes very smart people say the most ridiculous things. Peter Watson, the author of Ideas: A History of Thought and Invention is the latest example. He was interviewed last weekend by Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine. At one point the interview goes like this:

Solomon: "What do you think is the single worst idea in history?"

Watson: "Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history."

With one short sentence Mr. Watson shows himself to be a most unserious intellectual. The single worst idea - worse, mind you, than the idea of totalitarian fascism which was responsible for over 10 million deaths in the 20th century; worse than the idea of totalitarian communism which was responsible for over 100 million deaths in the same century; worse than the idea that man is just a brute animal which should live for his own pleasures, an idea responsible for millions of wasted and shattered lives - is the idea that there is a transcendent, personal God who enjoins us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

The worst idea in history is the idea that there is a non-arbitrary, non-subjective ground for human rights, dignity, morality, and meaning. The worst idea ever is the idea that there is a basis for believing that we are more than a pile of atoms, just so much dust in the wind.

The worst idea ever is an idea that has inspired the building of hundreds of universities, hospitals, and orphanages. It's an idea which fueled, or gave birth to, numerous charitable organizations, the women's and civil rights movements, the abolition of slavery, the rise of modern science, and it's an idea which has inspired, in addition to a multitude of other benefits to mankind, much of the greatest art, literature and music ever produced by human effort.

Nevertheless, the sage Prof. Watson sees it as "without question" the single worst idea in human history. Has he ever asked what the benefits of atheism have been? Atheism or atheists gave us the holocaust, the forced famine in Ukraine in the 1930s, the Gulag, the Cambodian killing fields, the rape of Nanking and a myriad of contemporay sociological dysfunctionalities like pornography, drugs, and gangsta' rap. But it's the idea that there is a God who judges the crimes of men that Mr. Watson abhors. With all his learning one has to wonder if Mr. Watson has never read Tocqueville.

Solomon: "But religion has also been responsible for investing countless lives with meaning and inner richness."

Watson: "I lead a perfectly healthy, satisfactory life without being religious. And I think more people should try it."

Mr. Watson responds to the objection that belief in God has invested millions of lives with meaning by testifying that he himself doesn't need such belief. What he needs is not the point, of course. The fact is that millions of people's lives have been enriched, directly or indirectly, by belief in God and for Mr. Watson to ignore this fact is to make himself intellectually frivolous and irrelevant.