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Stats, Founders and contradictions

A recent HDN column resurrected the revisionist fantasy that the U.S. always has been a "Christian nation," as the Founders intended it to be.

These assertions probably didn't arise from cynicism or diminished capacity; rather, they represent "perseverance of belief." All of us suffer from it to some degree. We cling to beloved beliefs in the face of contrary evidence, without attempting to refute that evidence. The problem is compounded by "confirmation bias," limiting one's inquiries to sources that agree with one's views, with an accompanying selective inattention to contrary views.

This case unfolded by noting that America's "education system is not as strong as it was" at some unspecified point in the past. It's true that our students' reading and math scores fare poorly among those of other developed countries. It's not true that the Supreme Court outlawed "Bible reading or prayer in schools." It did proscribe such activities when they carry schools' endorsement, which is a different matter.

Many of the Founders deplored state entanglement with religion. More recently -- in 1890 -- Justice Orton of Wisconsin's Supreme Court, concurring in the ruling that bible reading and devotionals in public schools are unconstitutional, wrote "There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state as religion. Let it once enter our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed . ... Those who made our Constitution saw this, and used the most apt and comprehensive language in it to prevent such a catastrophe."

So once prayer had been "removed" from schools, the column maintained sans evidence, a host of social ills resulted, including increased crime, unwed pregnancies, divorces, poor test scores and toenail fungus.

The notion that believers are more moral than nonbelievers is common, but wrong.

Self-identified atheists and agnostics are underrepresented in prisons. Some surveys couldn't find any at all, while another reported 0.5 percent of prison populations are unbelievers, contrasted with around 11 percent of the general population. The religious inmate census mirrors the religiosity rates in the general population.

Divorce rates are highest in the Bible Belt. The most religious states, based on church membership and attendance, and religious self-identification, have the highest rates of divorce, sexually transmitted infections, unwed pregnancies, and even abortion. The 10 states in which citizens most often searched the internet for "gay sex" (on six days a week; not Sundays!) all voted for religious Romney, and with the exception of Nevada, all are southern states with high religious participation.

The so-called removal of religion from schools occurred in the middle of other social trends, not at the beginning. Association is not causation.

Statistics show that when ice cream sales go up, murder rates go up too. Does eating ice cream make us murderous, or does committing murder make us crave ice cream? The answer is "neither;" the seeming correlation is due to the "Third Variable" phenomenon. In fact, both ice cream consumption and murders increase when temperatures rise -- both are summertime pastimes.

The column continued "the average time for the world's greatest civilizations to survive is approximately 200 years." Egypt, Greece, Imperial China, the Mayas and Rome don't count? Were they founded on "spiritual" values? Did they survive so long because they remained steadfast to the One True God?

The Incas and Aztecs only lasted a couple centuries, but they likely would've endured much longer were it not for their conquest by the guns of Spanish Christians. Those servants of God tortured their native vassals to force conversion to Christ, and burned or strangled those who refused.

The column provided misleading quotes from Franklin and Lincoln to bolster the idea that early American luminaries were Christians, and therefore, it seems, we should privilege Christianity in law.

Shall we avert our eyes from the US Constitution, which makes no mention of God whatsoever, not even using deistic euphemisms like "Divine Providence" and "Creator"?

Quoting Ben Franklin as though that Founder endorsed Christianity is funny but misguided. (Note that many values are shared by Christians and pagans alike, e.g. generosity, truthfulness, compassion and love.)

Joseph Priestly, a founder of chemical science, himself driven from England for being a Unitarian, wrote of his friend and colleague Franklin "it is much to be lamented that a man of Dr. Franklin's general good character and great influence, should have been an unbeliever in Christianity, and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers."

In surviving private correspondences, Franklin confirmed that he was indeed a deist. Noting that public recognition of such "heresy" could result in political and personal attacks from vindictive Christians, he implored his colleagues to keep his real views secret. Like other prudent deists of his time, he frequently embellished public statements with references to God -- but not to Jesus; he didn't think Jesus was divine, nor his teachings a revelation from heaven.

Lincoln's friend Ward Lamon and others confirmed that Lincoln was a deist who "sometimes bordered on atheism," and that he wrote a booklet "to prove First, that the Bible is not God's revelation. Second, that Jesus was not the Son of God." They relate that Samuel Hill, himself a nonbeliever, snatched the manuscript from Lincoln and threw it on the fire to protect his career.

Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays. hauxwell@ruraltel.net