The Huffington Post reports the results of yet another study showing that atheists are the least trusted minority in the world. This study also suggests an obvious explanation of why this is the case-

One motivation for the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 percent of American respondents would vote for a qualified atheist president, says Norenzayan. The figure was the lowest among several hypothetical minority candidates. Poll respondents rated atheists as the group that least agrees with their vision of America, and that they would most disapprove of their children marrying.

The religious behaviors of others may provide believers with important social cues, the researchers say. “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” says Norenzayan. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

It does stand to reason that a fear of God might cause some people to behave better than they otherwise would, and hence that lack of belief in God might cause these very same people to behave badly. But that the fear of atheism is nevertheless an irrational phobia follows from a simple corollary: if atheists actually were untrustworthy (and hence deceptive), they would likely not declare themselves to be atheists (since a deceiver surely wishes not to be recognized as such). Indeed, atheists would likely disguise their atheism by pretending to be the most ardent of believers! So it seems that, on this basis, if believers should distrust anyone, it is their fellow believers.

Of course, the idea that belief in a supernatural being is either a necessary or sufficient condition of moral behavior is so obviously false that it is hardly worth raising any of the myriad counterexamples. But it seems to me that there is another reason, besides the one mentioned above, for distrusting believers more than self-professed atheists. It is this: a believer can view behaving immorally as a nihilistic – or even courageous – act of rebellion (as adolescents do when disregarding their long-standing fear of their parents). By contrast, an atheist must view similarly bad behavior as little more than mundane self-indulgance, or petty selfishness. Even if she conceives of her immorality as a rebellion against social norms, this can hardly compete with the truly grandiose notion of disobeying the orders of a transcendent being. So there seems to be an independent reason to be more concerned with the potential immorality of believers than with that of atheists.

Now, I’m not suggesting here that atheists are necessarily any less immoral than believers; they are susceptible to the same temptations as anyone else. And, as believers are fond of pointing out, secular dogmas (such as Stalinism or Naziism) can be at least as damaging as traditional religious ones. But it does seem to me that a moral theory arrived at by the voluntary exercise of one’s rationality is likely to be just as reliable – if not more so – as one based merely on religious faith, particularly when that faith is only half-hearted (as it often is when it is simply inherited as a family tradition). The bottom line is that trust should be bestowed on or withheld from a person based on their actual behaviors, not their professed attitudes towards a theistic God.

Common Ground Is No Substitute For Compromise


A few weeks ago, Speaker Boehner announced that the goal of the Republicans on the supercommittee was to “find common ground” rather than to compromise-

“My message to you today is simple: faith in government has never been high, but it doesn’t have to be this low,” Boehner said, according to his prepared remarks. “The American people need to see that despite our differences, we can get things done. We can start by recognizing that ‘common ground’ and ‘compromise’ are not the same thing.”

The co-chairs of the “supercommittee,” Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), “couldn’t be more different ideologically, and neither are going to compromise on their principles,” Boehner added. “But I believe they share a commitment to finding solutions — finding those ‘areas of overlap’ between the parties, and getting them done,” he said.

As we bid a fond adieu to the supercommittee (that was anything but), there is an unpleasant lesson to be learned: in a republic with only two parties representing competing interests, you can’t effectively substitute “common ground” for compromise. That’s hardly surprising; if the deficit problem could be solved just by agreeing on moot points, it would have been laid to rest long ago, with no frustration experienced by either side. On the other hand, a willingness to compromise involves recognizing that one’s own principles are not the only ones relevant to settling a policy dispute.

Putting aside political principles for the moment, Freud observed some time ago that infants are ruled by the pleasure principle: the slightest dissatisfaction is perceived by them as absolutely intolerable pain. Psychologically healthy adults, by contrast, are governed by the reality principle: they realize that in a world inhabited by people other than oneself, one’s own desires – including the political principles one wishes to live by – sometimes cannot be fully satisfied. At those times, compromise is often the wisest course, despite the frustration it usually entails.

While the whole story has yet to unfold, my guess is that at least a few Democrats on the supercommittee were willing to compromise, while the Republicans – as a “matter of principle” – were not, just as Boehner indicates above. A solution, it appears, must await the arrival of more adults.

Could It Be True?


I’m not sure whether to believe this poll or not, given how evenly divided Wisconsin has been over the last couple of years. But, consistent with the strange wave of sanity that characterized the recent election results, a recent poll (run in part by St. Norbert College – hardly a liberal bastion) suggests that close to 60% of Wisconsinites – give or take 5% – now want Governor Walker out of office

Almost 6-of-every-10 Wisconsinites who responded to a new poll said they want Governor Scott Walker recalled — and a growing number of them are Walker’s own Republicans. 58-percent of almost 500 respondents to the Wisconsin Public Radio-Saint Norbert College survey said the governor should be removed — and only 38-percent said he should stay. Back in April, it was 48-to-47 to keep Walker. But with a five-percent error margin, that was a statistical dead heat.

Wendy Scattergood of Saint Norbert College said 24-percent of Republicans in the new poll favor recalling the governor — up from just 7-percent last spring. Scattergood said most Republicans who want to recall Walker tend to be younger and less educated than others, and they’re also less conservative.

State G-O-P spokeswoman Nicole Larson dismissed the poll, saying voters appreciate the money they’re saving thanks to Walker’s policies. The survey was taken by phone November first-through-10th.

A Strange Wave Of Sanity


A strange wave of sane election outcomes yesterday… Mississippi decided not to outlaw birth control by resisting the urge to declare a fertilized egg a full-fledged person; Ohio repealed a law that unnecessarily restricted collective bargaining rights for public employees; Maine voted to reinstate the right to register on election day; and so on and so forth. Even George Will, with whom I seldom agree, seemed to revert to being a relatively sensible conservative, writing of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates

Most of the candidates have disparaged Barack Obama’s decision that all U.S. troops will leave Iraq this year. (Ron Paul considers the withdrawal of U.S. assets insufficiently thorough; but, then, he might favor U.S. withdrawal from territories of the constitutionally dubious Louisiana Purchase.) What is the candidates’ objection to Obama implementing the status-of-forces agreement that his predecessor signed in 2008?

The candidates should answer three questions: How many troops would they leave in Iraq? For how long? And for what purpose? If eight years, 4,485 lives and $800 billion are not enough, how many more of each are they prepared to invest there? And spare us the conventional dodge about “listening to” the “commanders in the field.” Each candidate is aspiring to be commander in chief in a nation in which civilians set policy for officers to execute.

Regarding domestic affairs, most of the candidates — Jon Huntsman and Mitt Romney have admirably refrained — have been barking about courts, and especially about the Supreme Court, aka “nine oligarchs in robes” (Rick Perry). … Newt Gingrich, never one to miss an opportunity for rhetorical flamboyance, says “one of the major reasons” for his candidacy is the 9th Circuit’s opinion, nine years ago, that said the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance violates the First Amendment proscription of the “establishment” of religion: “That decision to me had the same effect that the Dred Scott decision extending slavery to the whole country had on Abraham Lincoln.”

Really? It took four years of war and 625,000 dead to settle the slavery question; it took a unanimous Supreme Court a few minutes to swat aside the 9th Circuit’s silliness. But a fulminating Gingrich speaks of cutting funding for the 9th Circuit’s electricity, law clerks and library. Michele Bachmann and Paul think Congress should restrict the jurisdiction of federal courts. The common theme of the candidates complaining about the courts is that, in Perry’s words, “activist” judges “deny us the right to live as we see fit.”

Indeed, courts sometimes do that. And conservatives sometimes applaud, vigorously and rightly…

I seem to have stepped (happily) into a parallel universe in which voters affirm fairness and even a conservative recognizes hypocrisy amongst his fellow ideologues… Can it possibly last?

Of Sex, Death, And Deer-Car Crashes


The Oshkosh Northwestern, bless it’s heart, reports local police activity in both Oshkosh and Omro, the megalopolis down the road a bit. An item in today’s police blotter, wedged between the harrowing reports of citations for harassing phone calls, delinquent dog-owners allowing their pets to relieve themselves on a pedestrian walkway, overflowing garbage cans, underage drinking and the like, came this riveting story-

Responded to a car versus deer accident Friday at Whispering Way and Willow Street. The car sustained minor damage.

That was it. The whole ball of wax. I found myself wondering, of course, just how much damage the poor deer sustained.

This is not a good time for local deer. As if the forthcoming hunting season weren’t enough to worry about, those horny bucks – I mean the deer, not the hunters – are apparently so distracted by the foxy does (and other bucks itchin’ for a fight) that they have a tendency to ignore oncoming traffic when crossing our bucolic highways. The sub-header underneath the headline on the very next page, “Deer-car crashes rise in fall”, said it all: “Mating season in late October to early November can be fatal.”

Ain’t it the truth. Just another heartbreaking fact of life dredged from the police blotters of Northeast Wisconsin.