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The impetus for this article began with a question I was tasked to answer: “Is Freedom of Speech Harmful for College Students?” The query came from my alma mater California State University, Fullerton, for a 2015 symposium they were hosting on the title question, partly in response to a controversy the year before captured in this headline in the Orange County Register: “Cal State Fullerton Sorority Sanctioned for ‘Taco Tuesday’ Party” What was the sorority’s sin? “Cultural appropriation.” That is, appropriating someone else’s culture as your own. Seriously? How could free speech possibly be harmful to anyone, much less college students whose introduction to the invigorating world of ideas begins with the premise that any and all topics are open for debate and disputation? I shouldn’t have been, given that signs had appeared the previous few years – starting around 2013 – with the deplatforming of controversial speakers; the emphasis on protecting students’ feelings from ideas that might challenge their beliefs; the call for trigger warnings about sensitive subjects in books, films, and lectures; the opening of safe spaces for students to retreat to when encountering ideas they find offensive; and the dispersal of lists of microaggressions – words, phrases, statements, and questions that might offend people. This article is my hypothesis of what went wrong.
This article was originally published in the November/December 2018 issue of the Journal of Criminal Justice as a “Special Issue on the Study of Ethnicity and Race in Criminology and Criminal Justice,” addressing a target article by the psychologist James Flynn on “Academic Freedom and Race,” dealing with the always-controversial topic of racial group differences in IQ scores. The subject of this issue is not the IQ test and whether or not group differences are real (and if they are, what the cause of those differences might be). Instead we were tasked with thinking about to what extent scientists and scholars (and anyone else) should be free to inquire into the matter and, especially, if they should be free to report their findings and opinions, regardless of the political or cultural implications.
The first section of this article was inspired by the publication of two new books on Scientology: Janet Reitman’s Inside Scientology and Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology. After the publication of these works the floodgates were opened, with Tony Ortega’s The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear, all exposing the abuses of the church in graphic detail. These were followed by insider tell-alls by Jenna Miscavige Hill, Beyond Belief, and by Ron Miscavige, Ruthless – the niece and father of the current head of Scientology, David Miscavige. Most revealing was the 2016 memoir by ex-Scientologist and Hollywood star Leah Remini, Troublemaker, followed by her A&E series, Scientology and the Aftermath. The second section was originally published as an opinion editorial in the Los Angeles Times in February of 2008, when Scientology was under public attack by a group calling itself Anonymous, which I found to be problematic, imagining what would have happened if a similar anonymous group attacked Jews, and why most of us would find that offensive. The third section is my brief response to the critics of the LA Times op-ed, primarily a historian of religion who upbraided me for using the pejorative term “cult” instead of the scholarly descriptor “New Religious Movement.” I think the shorter lemma fits.
After the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, my lecture agent Scott Wolfman, whose offices are located only eight miles from the site of the deadliest school shooting in history, contacted me to inquire if I would be willing to engage in a debate over gun control. He felt the need to do something – anything – to address the problem, and as gun violence was a subject I had done some research on, I undertook a thorough review of the social science literature and, in the process of preparing to debate the pro-gun advocate John Lott, penned this research article, first published in Skeptic for a special issue on gun violence. In brief, I concluded that while preventing highly improbable mass murders like that at Sandy Hook is impossible, there are some things we can do to decrease violence and reduce the carnage, which has only gotten worse since that tragic event.
This article was initially published in the August 2017 issue of the journal Theology and Science under the above title and subtitle. It was commissioned by Ted Peters, Research Professor Emeritus in Systematic Theology and Ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Center for Theory and the Natural Sciences. Even though Ted and I disagree on a great many things, we share a love and respect for science, for the question of extraterrestrial intelligence and for what such a discovery would mean to humanity in general and religion in particular. When Ted invited me to make the best case I could for a scientific defense of objective values and morals, I could not resist the challenge. My 2015 book The Moral Arc is a much longer and thorough defense of this worldview – especially my claim that science and reason can determine moral values – but herein I offer some new strategies for addressing the Is-Ought barrier problem to avoid the naturalistic fallacy that one cannot derive an ought from an is. And I relished the challenge of doing so in a more succinct statement.
Two events led to two essays related to Christopher Hitchens stitched into one here : (1) a book published after his death claiming that Hitch kept “two sets of books” about his religious beliefs – his public set as an atheist and his private set flirting with believing in God and religious faith; (2) Hitch’s death on December 15, 2011. My motives for each are self-evident within. so let me add parenthetically here that eight years on after he left us, Hitch’s voice is needed now more than ever. He was such a penetrating thinker on the deepest questions of our time. We live in troubled times; then again, Hitch lived in troubled times, and his stabilizing voice of reason and rationality gave us a deeper understanding of what was going on in our world, and lacking that intellectual foundation on which to rest our anxious souls only adds to the grief those of us who knew him already feel.
Following the publication of the article in the journal Theology and Science, the journal received a well-reasoned critique by the physicist George Ellis, which they published in a subsequent issue of Theology and Science, along with my response, which appears here. These two essays constitute my manifesto of Enlightenment Humanism through the worldview of Scientific Naturalism and, in fact, are the cornerstone of an even larger worldview I am working on now, hinted at in the subtitle of this book, Scientific Humanism.
This essay was originally published as an Opinion Editorial in the <italic>Los Angeles Times</italic> as “Free Speech, Even if it Hurts” on February 22, 2006. It was in response to the news that Holocaust denier David Irving, whom I wrote about in my co-authored 2000 book (with Alex Grobman) <italic>Denying History</italic> (2nd edition 2009), had been sentenced to three years’ imprisonment in Austria for violating one of their “hate crime” laws, a misguided, impractical and, in my opinion, immoral attempt to combat hate speech with censorship (and punishment) rather than with free speech. Unbidden and unbeknownst to him, before Irving’s sentencing, I wrote a letter to the judge along the lines of what I argue here, asking not just for leniency in his sentencing but for Irving’s freedom. I have no idea if the judge ever read my letter, and unfortunately I no longer seem to have a copy of it in my archives. That Irving was arrested at the airport in Austria well before he was scheduled to deliver his speech means that this was worse than an assault on free speech; it was an assault on free thought – literally a thought crime. How Orwellian.
Since I wrote “The Sandy Hook Effect” in 2012, gun violence has continued to fill the evening news, most notably the massacre in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017. In response to that horrific event I penned an opinion editorial for The New York Times, solicited and edited by the estimable editor Bari Weiss, addressing the argument by pro-gun advocates that guns are a deterrent against tyranny. What follows is an expanded version of that op-ed that includes the problem of copycat mass murders, in which perpetrators seek fame through their murderous acts, and a simple solution to it.
In 2005 I was invited to contribute to a volume celebrating the life and work of Richard Dawkins, which was published in 2006 under the title Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think. My essay title plays on Richard’s 2003 anthology A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love. After decades of illuminating the minds of millions of people through his popular science writing, Richard Dawkins turned his keen mind to religion, and the result was the birth of the New Atheist movement, which began shortly after this tribute volume was published.
The impact of idealized myths of femininity, including the trope of woman-as-nation, is addressed through embodied mythmaking as a consideration of the reiteration, reperformance and reinscription of myths on and through the body. Stasis and containment define violent mythmaking, yet the chapter also looks to the possibility of myth’s liberating and utopian function. Counter to the unhomely experience which marks woman’s displacement outside of culture, the introduction proposes the potential for women’s mythmaking to reconceive spaces, myths, and theatrical forms which accommodate female expression. The assertion of a creative female corporeality redresses scholarly neglect of female bodies; both their creativity and their histories. The introduction addresses the overarching question of this book, namely how to ‘house’ the body of women’s work in Irish theatre, and proposes a new paradigm, the genealogy, as a means of remodelling our understanding of the development of Irish theatre. Deploying a feminist genealogy enables the assertion of a coalition of women in Irish theatre united by their unhomely experience and mobilized through the collective action of embodied mythmaking.
This essay grew out of several threads of commentary on Graham Hancock, the author of numerous bestselling books about ancient human pre-history, whose work I had encountered many times over the years. Many millions of people seem to accept Hancock’s radically challenging ideas uncritically, so I thought someone needed to defend mainstream science and put Hancock’s alternative archaeological theories into perspective. What follows is an original essay stitched together from my notes for the show, my postmortem blog about it afterward, my Scientific American column about Hancock’s work, and a few thoughts about the book he published after our studio collision. I like Graham very much as a person, despite our differences over scientific issues, and through correspondence we became friends. He is a warm, thoughtful, caring, generous, and intelligent man whose life’s work I find compelling even while rejecting its central premise, with which this essay shall engage.
I took the opportunity to come at the problem from a different angle from that of the New Atheists’ anti-theism strategy of attacking religion directly, and argue instead for raising consciousness for religious skepticism through political freedom, namely protecting the rights of believers so that the rights of nonbelievers are equally protected.