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The Tsunami, Religion, Science and Our Politicians
by Lenni Brenner
February 26, 2005

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“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

-- James Madison


Folks, below is an op-ed sent to the New York Times on January 25th. Please read it. Then I'll bring things up to date regarding the effect of December 26 on the world and America's major religious and political ideologues.

It’s official. Shlomo Amar, one of Israel's two Chief Rabbis, declared the tsunami an “expression of God's ire with the world.” Din Syamsuddin of Indonesia's Muhammadiyah agrees. Allah disapproves of humanity: “It is an examination.” Pope John Paul ll feels that God hasn't given up on us, but it is “the most difficult and painful of tests.”

On Christmas, ca. 64% of Americans were certain of God's existence. Another 16% believed, with doubts. The devil also existed, according to 79% of Republicans, 67% of Democrats. The next day, 74% of us prayed, presumably to God.

Science, however, explains tsunamis sans theology. They can be anticipated. In 1998, Smith Dharmasaroja, Thailand's meteorologist, called for a warning system. A wave devastated New Guinea. Thailand was on the same fault. He terrified tourists and was reviled for it. Now he's the country's hero.

Astronomers say the universe is at least 13.7 billion years old. Geologists give ca. 4.5 billion for our planet. It’s evolved into molten iron and nickel, covered by rock stratums, many millions of years old.

Gallup reports 40% of Americans accepting this, believing that “God guided” life's development “over millions of years.” Another 9% say no god is part of evolution. But 47% believe God created humans “within the last 10,000 years." For many, the earth was created on “the first day,” the sun tagging along on “the fourth.” And when Korah revolted against Moses, “the earth opened her mouth, and swallowed them up, and their houses.”

But atheist or religious, we must democratically decide to deal with dangerous geological phenomena, national and global. Impressive tax money is required. Bush now says he will spend millions on Atlantic tsunameters. These register a tsunami's flow, warning of its approach, but only after a quake triggers it. Precisely where and when it will hit, and magnitude are uncertain. Presumptions, major quakes following minor flurries, frequently don't jell. And California's 1994 quake occurred on a hidden fault.

Fortunately, while we continue seeking more accurate predictions, safety engineering advances. New structures withstand great tremors. However existing Pacific coastal highways, etc., may have to be reinforced. But what do you repair first?

Science gives us safety, even if within limits. But almost half the citizenry grasps little of it. Bush's majority included most voters of 10,000-years mindset, while Democrats now debate how to appeal to them in the next election, not how to prepare for the next tsunamis.

Circa 45% of us donated to tsunami relief. But splendid private rescue efforts revealed duplications of services, gaps in others. Governments must be prime coordinators of future international efforts, with plans to integrate private groups. Here, doctors, engineers, must provide contingency volunteer lists to the directing agency.

It would deal with effects, not the geology involved. However, donors are a natural audience for seismic science. Informed, they will better understand rebuilding. Others followed the epic. Washington's duty is to teach them. Conspiracy theories circulate: Bush didn't put tsunameters in the Indian Ocean because he is a racist; it was triggered by American, Indian, Israeli bomb tests. Hearings must give us the real science. Above all, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must produce cheap videos, explaining geology. This isn't difficult. National Geographic prints excellent ocean floor fault maps and clear diagrams.

Most youths aren't interested in science. But they saw the horror on TV and pack charity concerts. High schools should focus student concern onto tsunami science.

Still, don't expect political miracles. Bush goes into the history books for his initial miserly rescue contribution. He's for teaching creationism in public schools. Indeed, supernatural intervention is far more likely than Bush voluntarily funding a popular scientific program.

We must “make him an offer he cannot refuse.” The 40% of religious evolutionists, the 9% for godless evolution, must unite to demand that our government educate voters on life and death matters.

Will this cause trouble for politicians playing to fundamentalism? That's their problem. Will it generate atheism? Yes and no. Tsunamis generate skepticism. Science certainly reinforces it. But millions merge science into religion. And so what, either way? Polls already showed every added year of education reducing theological certainty.

Church and state being discussed, perhaps Tom Jefferson should have the last word. His authority might convince educated fundamentalists that 4.5 billion is as patriotic as the 4th of July. The father of the University of Virginia described the opposition to his secular school. “The most restive is that of the priests of the different religious sects, who dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light, and scowl on it, the fatal harbinger announcing the subversion of the duperies on which they live.”

Did I expect them to run my op-ed? It’s factual. It expresses the Times’ respect for physical science. But it draws logical political conclusions: Science buffs must organize to force our politicians to educate their ignorant voters regarding the geology behind tsunamis. So I knew that the establishment talk-shop would never print anything going beyond its timeworn policy of instructing a Republican President to clean up his act, and then demanding that we replace the ingrate with a Democrat, come election Tuesday.

Sure enough, on February 2nd, one week after I sent in my piece, the Science section ran “Evolution Takes A Back Seat In US Classes.” Many teachers around the country are barely teaching evolution. Some feared arousing school bureaucrats or parents. The “politicians don't want to touch” evolution. “Everybody discovers the wisdom of federalism here very quickly.” But unnamed “experts say scientists are feeling increasing pressure to make their case, in part ... because scriptural literalists are moving beyond evolution to challenge the teaching of geology and physics on issues like the age of the earth and the origin of the universe.”

On February 4th, a news section editorial, “Afraid to Discuss Evolution,” ended with a plaintive sigh. Some bio teachers were also presenting intelligent design, out of misguided fairness. “That serves the students and the nation poorly as they enter an age likely to be dominated by biology.”

The 2/20 Times Magazine ran “Darwinian Politics,” an 11/04 poll:

We evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process.

Democrats 16%
Republicans 9%
All 13%

We evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, but God guided this process.

Democrats 28%
Republicans 23%
All 27%

God created us in our present form.

Democrats 51%
Republicans 66%
All 55%


Democrats 5%
Republicans 2%
All 5%

The poll scientifically demonstrates the exact difference between average Republicans and Democrats: Typical Bush voters have nit-sized brains, Kerry backers have gnat-sized brains. However, we must allow for the customary “margin of error.” It may be the other way around.

We thank the Times for telling like it is. But that's it. Not a syllable regarding what Washington, our scientists or us citizens should do. Not a word about what the Times intends to do. Every serious philosophy has its equivalent of “faith without works is dead.” But the w-word is forbidden in the editorial office. That would be “partisanship”' “responsible” journalism's greatest sin.

Every major American religious current said something about the tsunami. Unlike the Times, they leaped into action immediately. Inevitably, when everyone rushes to a disaster, there was much duplication and omission. But, beyond Protestant fundos handing out tracts with the food distributed, and some Jewish charities using Israeli aid to Sri Lanka to promo Israel, rather than focusing on the stricken land, there was an impressive list of pious “works”.

Ironically, their problem is with the faith end of the equation. Arguably the most important commentary on the tsunami was “Creation groans,” in the 1/25 issue of Christian Century, organ of the educated 'mainstream' Protestant community:

“It is hard to speak theologically about the Indian Ocean tsunami without being banal or obscene. To say the event reminds us of our finitude or our inability to control nature is to mumble platitudes. To say God willed such devastation for some greater reason is to administer a theological slap to the tear-stained faces of all who mourn, especially the parents who mourn their drowned children. To say God was powerless to do anything to stop the disaster may make the divine seem less monstrous, but it leaves us with no God worthy of the name.”

They cite Job, mandatory in such cases, and St. Augustine. But “neither this nor any other account offers comfort to those who grieve across South Asia.”

Be certain. Their genuine statement regarding credibility of any God-did-it scenario translates into some of the 64% of Yanks with no doubts about God jumping into the doubt column, and some, perhaps many, of the 16% with doubts coming over to the 14% sans religion.

They represent the Americans believing that "God guided” life's development “over millions of years.” The Pew Forum surveys say that “Modernist Protestants (78%) ... strongly supported Kerry, increasing their votes and turnout for the Democrat ... over 2000.”

Thus we've seen a tectonic shift in US politics. The fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention, historically Confederate, then KKK, and Democrat thru all that, is a pillar of today's Republican Party, while most scientifically educated northern and southern Protestants moved from Lincoln's party into Howard Dean's theological flea market.

Most are for women and gay clergy. Abortion is an unquestioned legal right. They seriously debate divesting from US companies dealing with Israel. Economically, they take Jesus putting the whip to the moneychangers in the Temple very seriously. But, just as they settle down in their party, it takes them for granted and chases after fundamentalist voters. They are scandalized to hear Hillary babble on, welcoming anti-abortionists into the ranks. They despise “men pleasers,” pandering to any religion.

Bill Clinton signed on to help Bush regarding tsunami relief. He's going to do the same for the UN and is in the field now for private US aid outfits. Feeding victims will help make the public forget Monica. But he is no more likely to call for educating the public on seismology than she is.

Bush will walk the walk. If his scientific advisors demand training Pacific Coast school kids on what to do in quakes or tsunamis, he will back it. If they want tsunameters in every bathtub in America, expect a knock on your door. But he won't talk the talk.

He isn't going to spend a penny explaining the geology behind such phenomena. The Democrats will go along with whatever seismic budget Bush presents. Maybe they'll add on a whole nickel. But expecting them to denounce him for not taking advantage of enormous public concern to scientifically educate the 51% of their own followers who believe that “God created us in our present form,” or the 67% who believe that there is a devil, is less intelligent than believing that there is a devil.

No mincing words, no evasions, no hypocrisy: Modernist Christians seeking refuge in a party crammed full of fundamentalists and cynical politicians playing to them, is a certain sign of their political naiveté. But their secularist counterparts are just as unworldly. The 2/16 Times reported that “Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood, said some of her allies were saying that ‘to the degree that the Democrats move away from choice, that could be the real birth of a third-party movement.’”

Better late than never. But Democrats didn't just start pandering to the religious right. In 1994, The Nation editorialized that “Even the most armor-plated Democratic voters had to shudder ... when Bill Clinton ... started talking about a constitutional amendment to encourage prayer in the schools.” On 2/2/96, the Times reported that he addressed the annual Congressional prayer breakfast, “suggesting that divorces should be harder to obtain.”

He instituted the anti-gay “don't ask, don't tell” policy. And Pearl and her feminist allies surely knew that Monica's boy toy had some troops in Saudi Arabia. Among other things, those 10,000 were training the Saudi National Guard. It defends the male chauvinist dynasty against its military, in the Arab world, commonly full of secularist nationalists, believers in female equality.

The scientific community is no better. Circa half of astronomers and physicists are atheists. Some younger atheists call themselves “brights”, to distinguish themselves from religious colleagues. But, young or old, many were dumbs, big buck contributors to Kerry's campaign, even as he told Black churches, not them, that he was for faith-based initiatives, provided its done constitutionally. To see to that, he promised to appoint a commission of scientific specialists and religious leaders. Except that Article VI of the Constitution clearly insists that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

The existing secularist organizations try to fight the good fight. But they have severe limitations. Some only take on court cases. Many are tax exempt and can't legally kick politicians’ asses. More important, for all their organizational nonpartisanship, as individuals they voted for a criminal party that is leaving them, rather than the other way around. They legitimately despise God Bless America patriotism. But they voted for a party because it was penalizing attacks on gays in “blue” American states as hate crimes, while it armed and trained the Saudis, who behead gays.

Yes, Kerry badmouthed the Saudis. After 9/11, they are as popular with Americans as a boil on your ass. But he said nothing about withdrawing the 500 troops remaining in Saudi Arabia training the Guard. And of course he shouted louder than Howard Dean, proclaiming his same-sex political marriage to Ariel Sharon, Prime Minister of a state with official chief rabbis who know all about God's wrath and tsunamis. Yet the vast majority of scientists and other secularists voted for him.

They still don't understand that unless they go back and take World-View 101, the elective “crap course” they didn't take in their college days, they will yet again inevitably betray themselves and their domestic causes again.

We all know what the next Christmas season will bring: “Here come Santa Claus, here come Santa Claus,” followed by rousing choruses of that soon to be classic, “here comes tsunami day, here comes tsunami day.” The media will recap what happened last year and what has happened since, in the 12 countries hit. Clinton will use the occasion to tell Monica and the rest of us stay-at-homes about the UN's work. After all, he is the perfect representative of the organization. The Democrat whose last presidential act was to pardon jailed multimillionaire hustler Mark Rich is as corrupt as the UN, give or take a few dollars.

But, before we badmouth him, we will have to ask bothersome questions. What have most secularists done since the disaster to compel our government to scientifically educate voters about tsunamis and quakes?

Eric Stern just left the National Democratic Committee to head the National Stonewall Democrats, which cons gays into helping Democrats around the country. He tells them that strategies that work in blue states must be retooled for the Confederacy. “We can't have models that work in New York, or Maine or elsewhere in the Northeast and expect them to work in the South.”

You didn't know that the South won the Civil War? That's what the Times science section meant regarding polls discovering “the wisdom of federalism.” States rights, the infamous battle cry of racist southern Democrats vs. the civil rights movement, permits today's party to talk out of both sides of its mouth regarding gay marriage, creationism, school prayers, “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and everything else.

The moral of the story is that its time to play wolf to the bipartisan foxes. The “scriptural literalists” that the Times told us about are indeed “moving beyond evolution to challenge the teaching of geology ... on issues like the age of the earth.” So, for starters, let's make a proposal to the ACLU, the American Association for Advancement of Science, American Atheists, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Christian Century, the National Lawyers Guild, Planed Parenthood, the academic science professors' associations, and other “enlightenment” fans. They should put together a Coalition for Popular Scientific Education that will take political stands.

Let's celebrate the July anniversary of the 1925 Dayton, Tennessee trial. Clarence Darrow defended John Scopes against the charge of teaching evolution. He was found guilty. But in the real world everyone knew that Darrow dramatically battered the daddy of all Democratic religious demagogues, William Jennings Bryan. Let's challenge today's prominent rightist mystigogues to debate the evolution of the earth and the life upon it, in Dayton and everywhere else.

Let's organize panels on campuses around the country, but particularly in states infested with fundamentalists, where geologists can explain tsunamis in relation to planetary geological evolution. Doing so, they would necessarily present the geological record showing the evolution of life. Once single celled life begins, its fossil presence and then that of more evolved species, becomes one of the defining factors determining the age of the sundry mineral stratums.

Many brights are the elitists that rightists accuse them of being. They often have had bad family religious scenes, etc., and have given up on convincing fundamentalists. But Baylor U., a major Baptist school, yanked the editor off the student paper for supporting gay marriage. There are young opening minds on such campuses and more in the state colleges, everywhere.

Let's get up a petition and take it to the students and faculty at Baylor and such schools, demanding that Washington produce Tsunamis for Dummies videos, with an explanation of the 4.5 billion years estimate of the earth's age, so that We the People can effectively oversee the work that our government must do regarding quake safety. Let's show them that none other than James Madison, “the father of the Constitution” and author of the Bill of Rights, prophetically declared that, “popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Christian Century's modernists are unmistakably in disarray, trying to reconcile their concept of a just creator with arbitrary nature. Their intellectual crisis isn't going to vanish, not by next 12/26, not ever. Some will leave Christianity for atheism, some won't. So what? That shouldn't concern anyone but them. In 1787, Tom Jefferson told his nephew that he had to think things thru for himself as to whether or not there was a god. Whatever their future path, what he said holds true for everyone, now and forever: “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision.”

Atheism automatically increases with scientific education. Modernist inability to come up with a convincing “faith-based” explanation for the tsunami will accelerate this in the US. But whether there is a god isn't the prime issue. Seismic safety is. Whatever each mod ultimately decides, they will still believe in geological evolution over billions of years. They believe in public safety education. Such a petition should get their support.

There can be no illusions regarding the difficulties in bringing the majority of Americans irrevocably into the scientific camp. The Times reported a National Science Foundation poll finding: “Only half the survey respondents knew that the Earth takes a year to go around the Sun.” Another article declared that, “most Americans believe in miracles, while half believe in ghosts.” (11/11/03) Indeed it would take a miracle to convince all these fundos that miracles don't happen. But 26% of American adults have bachelor degrees and 52% have some college. Though many of these are fundos, they read and watch TV. Many were stunned by the Indian Ocean horror.

The 1755 Lisbon quake cum tsunami was central to the development of modern rationalism, via Voltaire's Candide. But most French peasants never heard of it. We live in the TV age. “Tsunami” is already one of the most widely used words in history and people are putting their money were their mouth is. It generated history's biggest charity outpouring. Indeed, the effects are already so dramatic that we perforce leave the last political word on it to Shakespeare's Brutus:

There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyages of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.

Lenni Brenner is the editor of Jefferson and Madison on the Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism. He can be reached at

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