Sunday, November 27, 2011

Batting Average Matters

You wouldn't know it if you've met me in the past seventeen years, but I was the biggest baseball fan you'd ever meet.  I wasn't old enough to understand or truly like baseball until about 1990, when the Royals World Series victory was only five years in rear view.  On Sundays back then, the paper would publish every player's stats in the back of the sports section. I poured over these statistics. I filled notebook after notebook with projected statistics, trying to determine how well the teams would finish the season.  I was a stat rat.

For Christmas in 1991, my dad bought me Total Baseball, a several-thousand page book with every batting and pitching statistic ever recorded. It listed the box scores and summaries of every Championship and World Series. It also introduced me to SABRmetrics, advanced statistics that helped determine the actual value of a player, rather than his raw production (Though, back then OPS+ was PRO+ and WAR was TPR.  They were renamed due to slight tweaks in the algorithm used to figure them.). MORE stats! I was ecstatic.

By 1994, I insatiably consumed everything Baseball. What a year it was for Major League Baseball. I had never seen the Royals in the playoffs and they were in the wild card race.  I was barely five years old when they won the World Series. Tony Gwynn was assaulting .400.  Ken Griffey Jr, Matt Williams and Frank Thomas were on pace to hit fifty home runs, a feat accomplished by only eleven men before. Thomas was even in the hunt for the Triple Crown and was close to hitting a Home Run once every ten at bats, which hadn't been done since Hank Aaron in 1973. The only other players able to accomplish that were Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Hank Greenberg. Greg Maddox gave one of the best pitching seasons in major league history.  A Royals pitcher, David Cone, was a lock for the American League Cy Young Award.

The players went on strike and the magical season ended after 112 games. There were no playoffs. There was no World Series.

I was crestfallen.  I had never felt so betrayed.  I couldn't believe that pure greed could rob me of something I enjoyed so much, and the players I loved and supported were the ones who did it to me. (The owners were also to blame, but they were willing to compromise earlier. The players felt that the proposed salary cap, which would have made the game fairer, would be unfair to the players.)

I tried to get back into baseball, but found it hard when seemingly everyone was a power hitter.  I never saw so many home runs in my life. I never read about so many home runs. Because there never were so many. In the shortened 1995 season, there were hundreds more home runs than there were in the full 1993 season. Home runs became just another hit. They were pedestrian.  I kept only enough of a passing interest in baseball to watch a powerless outfielder named Brady Anderson hit fifty home runs for the Orioles in 1996.  I was done.  Baseball meant nothing anymore.

The fifty home run club's ranks swelled disproportionately.  Only those elite eleven players, nearly all Hall of Famers, managed to hit fifty or more home runs in the previous seventy-four years. Within the next ten  measly years, the list had more than doubled. Seventy-four years of baseball before the strike had produced exactly fourteen immortals who hit 500 or more career home runs. An incomprehensible testament to potent longevity. Since then, ten more names have been added (Fred McGriff would have been one of them if the strike didn't short him in 1994 and 1995. Instead, he ended his career with 493). I previously mentioned that only three players had hit a home run once every ten at bats; for the next nine years after the strike, there wasn't a season in which a player DIDN'T do it. As it became increasingly clear that the players were cheating, baseball lost all credibility. I watched 'roided-up gorillas like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds smash beloved and honestly obtained home run records. Their records are beyond tainted.  They're meaningless.  On top that: since the strike, the Royals have become the worst team in Baseball's modern era with the longest playoff drought by a wide margin.

Finally, in 2008, the players got caught cheating and home runs dropped back to about where they were supposed to be. Thirty home runs was a lot again.  I began to casually peruse through current stats. With only a handful of exceptions, all the players who went on strike in 1994 had retired.  The Royals have the first promising franchise in a long, LONG time.  Their roster is filled with young talent who will stick around for years to come, under contract, so they can't run off to the richest teams in the Big Leagues.  Without Steroids to tip the scales against the Royals, they look like they will be a competitive team next year or a year after. I found myself regularly checking current baseball stats. The league leaders in home runs and slugging percentage looked more like pre-strike numbers.  By mid-season 2011, I was somehow back into baseball.

I noticed that something is fundamentally different about how people view baseball now. I was pleased to see SABRmetrics was mainstream among baseball fans and statistical analysis was more valued. I had never heard of Billy Beane or the book Moneyball until the movie came out, but was glad to know they had an influence on which statistics were more noteworthy than others. Ever since I started collecting baseball cards, I knew that On Base Percentage (OBP) was the most important statistic for a batter. It includes every way a player gets on base, including walks and hit-by-pitches, not just base-hits like Batting Average.  I once asked my dad why nobody cared about OBP, and he said something like "hits are more exciting." I couldn't argue against that. Walks end plays. Hits start plays.

Unfortunately, batting average has been cast aside by the more hardcore baseball fans as irrelevant. They say "it doesn't matter."  I instinctually disagreed.  I wasn't sure why, exactly, but hearing that batting average, a statistic I cherish, being dismissed out of hand rubbed me in the worst way. Ted Williams .406  average in 1941 meant nothing?  Rogers Hornsby's .424 was a meaningless 20th century record?  Surely nostalgia wasn't the only reason I so violently opposed the hypothesis that batting average didn't matter.  Maybe its just how dismissive the claim was. To say that OBP is more important is obvious. To say that a stat is without the enough merit any consideration is insulting. Maybe I'm upset because high Batting Average requires  talent that steroids didn't directly affect.  Watching record after record being broken by cheaters may have made me hold on tighter to the ones they hadn't fully tainted.

Hearing the arguments against batting average made me research its true value. I will only concede one point in which batting average doesn't matter--the lead off hitter in an inning. Then, and only then, is batting average completely unworthy of statistical consideration.  The lead off man of an inning must get on base. It doesn't matter how. After he is on base, that's when average matters in the next batter. A single will move him from first to third. A walk will not.  If the lead of hitter steals second, or makes it to second base on a double or throwing error, a single by the next batter will probably score him. A walk will not.

Many baseball statisticians have already picked up on this line of thinking and include numbers such as Average with Runners In Scoring Position (RISP) or Average With Runners On Base. These stats are nice to show what a player has done with runners on base, but overall, their average over career with runners on base is the same as their overall batting average.  In other words, statisticians are unnecessarily shrinking the sample size because they believe in a myth called "clutch hitting." If a batter's performance was considerably altered by high pressure situations, he wouldn't be in the big leagues. Players who can't keep their composure in clutch situations are a liability. If they suddenly get better when something important is on the line, they're otherwise lazy. Both bad signs in a ballplayer.

If runners are on second and third with two outs, which is better to have, a player with a .400 OBP, or a .300 hitter?  What if this batter was followed by a pitcher who was incapable of hitting? In Kansas City, I grew up when our number nine hitter was Brent Mayne.  If he were up next, their opportunity to score the runners would mostly be reliant on a hit by the batter before him in the lineup. A walk would likely result in nothing but three stranded runners. In fact, if it was early in the game and the pitcher was smart, he'd walk whoever this theoretical batter was and take his chances with the pitcher or Brent Mayne. Take into account the psychological power of a hit off a pitcher. As my dad said, hits are more exciting. It causes the fielders to exert themselves and generates more opportunities for mistakes on the part of the defense. Not just contact, but base hits.  Fielders have to chase balls to the wall, dive for short fly balls, try to spear line drives, and failure to do so may end up as extra bases or easier runs.

Different statistics have different importance for different members of a team.  On Base Percentage is important for everyone.  Batting Average is important for everyone on a team, but not every time they step into the batter's box.  I can't defend the importance people place on RBIs, but it's disheartening to see other valuable stats getting shunned because there are more precise indicators of overall player value. It's like saying doubles don't matter because home runs are better.

The flaw in SABRmetrics is its contempt for situational baseball.  Because all stats eventually flatten out over long periods of time, some baseball fans think that individual moment are completely irrelevant. You can see this if you watch the movie Moneyball, when Billy Beane tells his players to never bunt or steal bases.  Never?  That's just stupid. In the long run, sacrifice bunts may be statistically negligible. That doesn't justify losing a game because the manager didn't bunt home a run because it is rarely justified.  To say stealing doesn't produce runs is weird too. Stealing bases is the sacrifice of OBP for Slugging Percentage. Sometimes, being on second is valuable when being on first is not.  Most of the time bunts and steals are unnecessary. At times, even costly. But using ultimate language like "never" and "worthless" is an overcorrection resulting from the longtime under-appreciation of valuable information. Batting Average is now sneered at by hardcore baseball fans due to this overcorrection. It's just too much.

Yes, OBP is better, but Batting Average matters.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Good Ol' Days

There were no good ol' days.

The world has not gone to hell.

Things are not worse "now-a-days."

To what utopian past are the people who make these claims comparing the present? When people talk about how bad things have gotten on the floor of Congress, that politics have "gone down the drain," do they really not know United States History? Do they not know that Charles Sumner was beaten with a cane on the Senate floor?  I'm sure they are unaware that he was preceded in being beaten with a cane on the floor of Congress by Matthew Lyon, Horace Greely and Josiah Grinnell.  That didn't even include people like William Stanberry who was caned in the street by Gov. Sam Houston or the multiple fistfights and brawls that have broken out in Congress.  Those are just the canings.  Do these people, who look back to America's Glory days, back before we supposedly "lost our way," consider it glorious to shoot political rivals to death? According to Joanne Freeman, at the beginnings of our United States, losers in political elections would often challenge the winner to a duel. In total, counting petty and professional quarrels, more than twenty politicians were killed in duels, most notably former Treasury Secretary and Founding Father Alexander Hamilton killed by then Vice President Aaron Burr.

People talk of government corruption and, of course, about how bad things have gotten. Politicians certainly haven't gotten crooked. Have people forgotten Nixon already? It's somewhat understandable to forget that Warren G. Harding had the most corrupt presidential administration in our country's history, but Grant's was nearly as bad and no one seems to mention that. Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe, before either was president, committed what we would now consider treasonous acts by feeding confidential information to the French government. The aforementioned Aaron Burr was actually tried for treason after trying to steal land from the United States and create his own kingdom.  Eldbridge Gerry spawned the name "Gerrymandering" after manipulating the boundaries of his congressional district so much that it looked like a salamander. The last four men mentioned hold places on the roster of our revered team of Founding Fathers.

What time period was so crime-free that it now terrifies people to think about how much more violent the streets, schools and homes have become? It certainly hasn't been any time in the past 42 years. We have the lowest crime rate since 1969 (when hippies were putting flowers in gun barrels) and the lowest violent crime rate since 1975. America certainly wasn't low crime from 1882 to 1968, when nearly five thousand men, women and children were lynched to disenfranchise blacks. It's difficult to find an exact number of how many black women were raped during that time for the same purpose. It was a lot; virtually all unreported. I'm sure there aren't too many of the black community who look back and see glory days of years gone by.  It seems that only whites can look back and see the utopian past, but it's not like white people were unscathed by crime.  In the 1930s, eight FBI agents were killed by gangsters and outlaws. Oh, and wasn't that decade particularly high in crime because of The Great Depression? That doesn't sound so glorious. It was halted by the even less glorious attack on Pearl Harbor. If we go back further than 1868, we will find ourselves in the bloodiest war ever to wage on this continent, costing over a million casualties. Soldiers on both sides incessantly pillaged and looted. They sometimes raped and murdered civilians as they swept through towns. The people would just have to hope that armies didn't burn their whole town to the ground or use it as a war zone.  It had all the things that you might expect from a war. The streets sure weren't safer then.

Folks who reminisce about the Good ol' Days believe that issues today have bred a new type of criminal.  A bloodthirsty sociopath whose selfish desires have annulled his humanity. Only today could produce such a monster, they believe.  For some reason, old folks seem to think psychos are more prevalent now. Psychopaths are hiding in all the old people's closets waiting to rape, kill and rob them.  I guess they don't know about Baby Face Nelson, who fired automatic weapons into crowds of women and children as he literally cackled with laughter. He also killed three of the aforementioned FBI agents. Dick Hickock and Perry Smith broke into a Kansas house in 1959 and blew the heads off a family of four with a shotgun in a pathetic robbery.   Ed Gein killed women in the 1950s and kept their heads as bedposts and he wasn't the first, or the worst, serial killer. As near as we can tell, there hasn't been any change in percentage of serial killers in the population.

When people claim that scams are everywhere "nowadays," do they realize that Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scheme got its name from Charles Ponzi, a con man in the early 1900s? Con men used to mail instead of email, but the scams remain the same.  The Nigerian 419 scam used to be called the Spanish Prisoner in the late 19th century. Scam tactics date back to at least 300BCE when Ancient Greeks perfected insurance scams on Maritime vessels.

Like I said before, it seems that only white people talk about the good old days, and it mostly seems to have existed in 1950s and maybe early 60s. Think Mad Men. It amazes me that women say anything about any time other than the last 20 years as being anything but degrading, but they do.  Old women frequently accuse the world of going to "hell in a handbasket."  I guess they liked it when they were known as nothing but housewives and secretaries, and could be nothing but housewives or secretaries.  There were exceptions, yes, but not too many. During that same time, the richest were taxed 91% of their income, so it's not like Obama's tax hikes are anything but wimpy when compared to taxes under the Eisenhower administration. I suppose people didn't care about having their phones illegally tapped by Hoover and his FBI, having their first amendment rights trampled on, being ostracized or blacklisted for being communist or even accused of being a communist. Do these old white men not remember that the world almost ended during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962? We almost blew up the world. That is not an exaggeration. For two weeks, almost every American was glued to the TV, preparing, if necessary, to die, while the government lied and said school children could cover their heads under their desks to avoid serious injury from a thermonuclear explosion. Good Ol' Days indeed.

Looking back at writings from the past, we see that a group from every generation has argued this point. People are always fearing for the future and claiming that some great doom is unavoidable.  So far, for the past 250 years, we've managed to avoid this unavoidable doom. And while we were fending it off, we also improved every aspect of living.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

WTF Happened to Frank Miller?

Remember the late 90’s sitcom trend of parents failing to correctly use  the youth lingo? They would hopelessly use words like “hip” and “groovy” when giving their teenage children the low down on the birds and the bees. Kids would roll their eyes, say “oh, Dad” while the laugh track would mock him. From the release of The Dark Knight Strikes Again to present day, Frank Miller has turned himself into the lame dad of the comic book world. He keeps attempting to captivate them with a hardcore Batman, but has lost all touch with what younger generations find interesting.

By now, most people know who he is--writer/artist of Sin City, The Dark Knight Returns and 300.  In the early 80’s he was one of the first to start writing “gritty” comics. He redefined Daredevil, The Punisher, and Batman. From 1991-1998, he was, in my opinion, the best comic book creator alive. His comics mixed heroism with exaggerated action, hard-boiled cynicism, and wit. Characters took equal time thinking of clever ways to conquer goals as they did physically pummeling enemies. With Sin City, Miller created a distinct, high contrast, art style that was unique in comics.  The hard crisp lines separating black from white were nearly devoid of the typical 90’s comic book crosshatching that made Jim Lee famous.

Something changed in 1997 with Sin City: Family Values, or slightly before.   His sense of goofy humor began crawling into inappropriate moments of his testosterone drenched Sin City world. For the first time, humor trumped the noir tone. For some reason, Miller thought it would be a good idea for Miho, an assassin, to roll around on roller blades for the entire comic.  Miller’s previous Dwight storyline, The Big Fat Kill, balanced humor and action more effectively. His art, also, was noticeably diminished from his previous books. Family Values lost most of Miller’s hard black and white compositions and introduced scribbly cross-hatching.  The main character, Dwight, no longer wore the hard outlined trench coat. Miller replaced it with a knee-length fur coat with a loosely scribbled silhouette. Miller began drawing faces with lines that contoured the natural lines of the face, giving his characters the weathered appearance of characters beyond their years. It’s the cardinal rule of shading faces: each line adds a year to character’s life.  Comic book artists usually shade faces with straight lines that cannot be mistaken for wrinkles. The same way Miller did in the 80s.

Miller created several quality comics for the next few years (even with his new, looser style), including the wonderful 300 in ‘98 and, to a lesser extent, Sin City: Hell and Back in ‘99.  That all fell apart in 2001 with the release of The Dark Knight Strikes Again, or as DC marketers pompously called it, DK2.  The goofy title should have been a warning sign. Frank Miller said in an interview that he wanted to make the comic have more of a cartoony feel.  I didn’t like this idea, considering the first Dark Knight book had a forlorn, gloomy tone. Still, I thought, there could be hope. “Cartoony” made me think of Rick Burchett’s clean crisp lines in Batman Adventures or Frank Quitely’s minimalist but precise artwork in All Star Superman. Miller gave us neither. We were exposed to the worst art I’ve ever seen in a professionally made comic book, surpassing the previous champion crap-pile of Mitch Byrd’s pencils in Generation X 23.  Miller must have a different interpretation of “cartoony” than I do, because DK2 looked like a thirteen year old got a box of crayons and tried to draw like Frank Miller. And then got bored. And then started doodling.

I first noticed how inconsistent and sloppy the inks were. Miller didn’t even pretend to make contour outlines of characters.  They had jagged starts and halts with inconsistent thickness.  John Romita Sr. once shared inking tips with Wizard magazine. He demanded that inkers control the thickness of their lines. It could be crucial to the illusion of depth and making the foreground distinguishable from the background. Miller had been able to abide by this for the past thirty years.  All of the sudden, he was either incapable or too lazy to bother.  His lines strayed off characters’ bodies like loose threads. One internet review of the comic generously labeled the art as “hastily drawn.”  I would call it a big pile of shit.

Characters’ limbs and appendages changed size. Their hands would increase or decrease in size depending on how much time Miller took to draw them. Same with feet and heads. For instance, look at the size of Batman’s hands in these panels below.

According to the perspective of his stance in the top panel, his left hand should be smaller than his right.  It is obviously larger. It’s also TWO AND A HALF TIMES the size of his head.  By the way, he’s also punching on Superman there, who’s splotchy and shadowed for no apparent reason.  Frank Miller also seems to have decided that being beaten up makes you look like you spilled an ink well on your face.

What about this?

Wonder Woman’s thighs belong to Kathy Bates and she looks like a transvestite. The laces on her forearms don’t match the angle of her arm. And what is up with her triceps becoming one with her torso?  

He correctly determined that he couldn’t draw hands, so he frequently hides them in this book. Sometimes Miller doesn’t want to draw hands or feet, so he hides them behind truly awful artwork.

Miller doesn’t even bother to make sure he doesn’t accidentally ink the torso over the top of an arm.

Then we have the worst drawing of the Joker ever.

I just don’t know what to say about that one--moving on.

How about the man of steel when he’s not a giant ink blot? Still sucks.

This too, is so bad that it could pass without comment. I’m just not going to let it. Superman looks 80 years old and Japanese, he has a 24 inch waist, once again, an arm becomes a torso at the bicep, and the fingers on his left hand don’t match the angle of his hand.

Look at Robin’s forearms in the first panel.

Hell, look at any panel. The art makes Rob Liefeld look good.

Most cartoony comics have distinct colors to make up for the lack of shading. Lynn Varley’s colors are muted and dull. I feel bad for ragging on her, though. She didn’t have much to work with. Still, I see colorists like Edgar Delgado elevate all the artwork they touch.

This page from DK2 also exemplifies the worst writing in comic books. It’s goofy, like the rest of the story.  Anything that Miller thought would be cool was so obviously awful, I’m surprised DC’s editor didn’t cancel the book at the script’s first draft.
I’ve been holding out hope that my beloved Frank Miller would pull himself out of the creative tailspin he’s been in for the past decade or so.  It hasn’t happened and, worse, he’s degenerating. Frank Miller has stayed afloat by retreading the glory of his 80s and 90s creation, getting royalties from his reprinted comics, selling film rights to his comics, and doing one-shots on characters he perfected decades ago like Daredevil and Batman.  He has since forgotten how to write Batman, as proven in the awful All-Star Batman and Robin, which was cancelled before it was finished. It was supposed to come back this spring after a two year hiatus, but I haven’t heard anything.
All Star Batman and Robin has a moment where Batman cackles with laughter. That’s right, cackles. Once you let that sink in, Robin makes the comment “He may be faking that voice, but his laughter still creeps the crap out of me.” As bad as that line sounds, it’s actually worse.  I don’t need to dwell on how artificial “creeps the crap out of me” sounds, so I’ll move on to the context. What does he mean “still”? It’s not like Robin ever mentions being creeped out beforehand and Batman doesn’t commonly go around cackling like a madman.  And the whole idea of Batman creeping someone out with a laugh was stolen from Batman the Animated Series when he does it to freak out Harley as a stalling tactic. It is not and never should be a character trait as Miller made it.
In an earlier page, when Robin doesn’t know who Batman is, Batman answers: “What are you dense? Are you retarded or something? Who the hell do you think I am? I’m the goddamn Batman.” This is not the tough-love mentor we know in love. He’s a petty, mean-spirited asshole.
Other than the pathetic attempt to overwrite the Batman he helped to create in Batman: Year One, which removed every ounce of camp from the Adam West era and transformed Batman into the Dark Knight we could appreciate, Miller has tried his hand at directing.  Which actually pisses me off more than it should.  For Sin City (2005), Robert Rodriguez kept as close to the comic books as possible while Frank Miller in his “co-director” status, helped actors become his characters. I greatly enjoyed Sin City, but it replaced the tone of the comic with camp. This was the first time in 20 years that Miller had let his work be adapted to another medium.  He said it was because the Hollywood process had destroyed his ideas in the past and he didn’t want to put up with it anymore (Robocop 2 & 3).  Makes sense. However, his next directorial project was to adapt Will Eisner’s The Spirit.  Miller did exactly what he hated about his previous film efforts--he took someone else’s idea and destroyed it, changed it to fit his own style and ignored the creator’s intent.  Eisner is a legend whose image is fiercely defended by rabid comic book fundamentalists. It’s not like we wouldn’t notice how much the movie sucked. I also checked out Frank Miller’s storyboards for The Spirit because it’s the only art he’s done in about five years, not counting a few pin-ups in the backs of his friends’ comics.  The Spirit artwork is awful and it pretty much only consists of guys shooting at the camera with two guns.

From 2001 until this day, I’ve wondered if Frank Miller has a medical condition, because his art has taken a stylistic turn for the worse, much like Picasso’s.  It’s sloppy. It’s inconsistent. It’s lazy--as if he were trying to avoid the most difficult details and distort the human form so much that we wouldn’t realize he could no longer draw it with consistent precision. In the most recent months, his hollowed cheek bones might also indicate an illness.  As a human, I certainly hope he’s just being a lazy artist, because that can be corrected.  But his work has meant so much to me for so long, that a part of me wants it to be beyond his control, just because I’d hate for these last ten years to be the lasting impression he gives a generation of comic readers.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Atheists Try to Steal the Founders Too

I'm defensive when anyone proclaims on which side of modern issues "the Founders" would land. I wrote a blog last year about the religious right's blatant attempt to superimpose the founding fathers into their warped version of history. They inaccurately and perpetually try to convince the world that the U.S. Constitution was founded on Judeo-Christian values. They rarely bother giving evidence because it would require them to take quotes out of context.  The truth is that the Constitution was formed by a group of great men who agreed that our government would be "godless" and to further express the idea, they amended the document to expressly restrict government involvement in religion and vice versa. When college drop out Sean Hannity or woefully uneducated and plagiaristic Glenn Beck claims we live in a Christian nation, I waste no time booing them from their undeserved stages. When the well-educated Newt Gingrich or Bill O'Reilly make the same claims, I demolish them with evidence. I don't care why they have twisted the truth to fit their ideologies; it is a despicable display of intellectual dishonesty, whether or not they are sincere.

That brings me to my disappointment in Dr. Richard Dawkins. In his book The God Delusion he devotes a few pages to the foundation of the United States and the men behind it. He too attempts to dispel the illusion that the religious right would thrust upon us.  Dawkins, however, doesn't seem well-versed enough in early American history to succeed without resulting to falsehoods. He seems to have relied on the testimony of more heavy-handed atheist writers and printed what they told him.  Dawkins declares at the head of the section, "Certainly their writings on religion in their own time leave me in no doubt that most of them would have been atheists in ours." That sentence sets the tone for the argument he lays before us over the next few pages. To give some perspective, a "few" pages in a book equals the amount of words dedicated to complete argumentative essays. Even though the section about the founders was aside the main point of his chapter, he dedicates more time to it than I do to most blogs.

I believe at least one impartial party should give an accurate refutation of his historical evidence. So far, only creationists have argued against the veracity of Dawkins' use of the Founding Fathers. I would rather people not get their facts from a group who dismisses solid evidence and considers it virtuous. (note: I have run into creationist websites that purposefully misquote Dawkins to make his point even less sustainable. It is another form of intellectual dishonesty and I doubt they even read the book.)

As with many atheists, Dawkins primarily uses Thomas Jefferson in his argument because Jefferson was an atheist or extremely skeptical deist.  Either way, he did not believe that God was an intervening force in the affairs of man.  Dawkins makes the same mistake that his opponents do. He fallaciously aggregates the beliefs of the Founders. His argument considers them parts of a hive mind with intellectual convictions in line with those of Thomas Jefferson. This was not the case. All of the men at the Constitutional Convention had their own opinions and frequently disagreed with each other.  Dawkins ignores this and by using very few examples, gives the impression that the founders were collectively anti-religious.

He makes an interesting observation about different eras perceiving religion differently, but overstates the difference by calling the founders atheists.  Christianity now bears little resemblance to Christianity of the Enlightenment and I touched on the subject in a previous blog. The intellectual Christians of the founding generation generally rejected the concept of miracles, conceded that the Bible was corrupted by a millennia of crooked priests, dismissed many fables in the Bible that were borrowed from other lore, they didn't treat the Bible literally, recognized its inconsistencies, and wholeheartedly believed that the only way to understand Christ's divinity was through reason. Though dissimilar to today's Christianity, they still believed that Jesus was God.

Dawkins leaves out a considerable amount of information in order to continue to more integral points of the book's primary argument: the existence of God. By doing so, he only quotes Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, John Adams and James Madison.  First of all, these four men do not represent the Founders' beliefs. There were 56 delegates to the Constitutional Convention who all had their own religious beliefs.  They made the United States Constitution to protect their right to those beliefs. Worse yet, three out of the four Founders used by Dawkins were obviously believers in a divine force that guided the actions of men. To say they were secularists is perfectly accurate in all four cases. To say they were atheists is blatantly false.

Adams was Ambassador to England during the Constitutional Convention. He was still an influential presence at the convention because of his Thoughts on Government, widely read among the delegates and many of his ideas made it into the final draft of the Constitution. Even if Adams could have been at the Constitutional Convention, he would have had no interest in forcing his religious beliefs on anyone.  He said in a letter to his brother-in-law about his ministerial education,"I shall have liberty to think for myself without molesting others or being molested myself."  John Adams could be anti-religious at times and openly doubted the truth to great passages in the Bible, but never rejected his belief in God.

Jefferson was not at the Constitutional Convention either. Though he corresponded with James Madison regularly at the time, he did not have an active hand in the debates.  Jefferson is often included in debates about the framing of the Constitution because the founders were essentially arguing over the correct interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson. The founders argued for months over the correct way to honor the "spirit of '76." Jefferson was a non-believer and fought very hard for the separation of Church and State. He rejected Christianity and all superstition.  He is the only person on the list that could even possibly be considered an Atheist.

Benjamin Franklin, by that late point in his life, was religious and believed in divine intervention, though not the divinity of Christ.  Benjamin Franklin was a Christian...then a Deist...then...something.  He was never an atheist. He rejected Christianity quite early in his life and never went back to it. By the time he attended the Constitutional Convention, he could most accurately be described as a follower of Judaism.  He believed there was a divine presence that actively guided goings-on in the world and considered the Bible's tales as a moral guide.  He appreciated Jesus as a moral philosopher, but no more than that. During the Constitutional Convention he even requested prayer be said to focus the delegation's efforts.

James Madison was probably the most fervent in his efforts to create a wall of separation between church and state, but he was a clearly devout Christian.  This is why I'm so confused as to why Dawkins chose to include him in a list of people he considered "atheists."  Madison is the biggest ally to the cause so there's no need to twist the fact that he was Christian.  He wrote volumes about the separation of church and state and vehemently defended it all his life.  He went to church too.  Why Dawkins felt a need to claim him as an atheist, I don't understand.

In the end, Dawkins makes the point that no matter what the founders actually were, agnostics, atheists, theists, or deists, they were, above all, secularists. Above all else they wanted Religion and Government in opposite corners of the room.  For the most part, that is true.  Dawkins stumbled, groped and misinformed his way to a good point.  Because the Founders realized the importance of their role in the creation of the first secular nation, they preserved their writings on the subject.  It's very easy to get copies of the [almost] complete writings of George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John Adams. They can speak for themselves. There's no need to lie about it.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Obama Caused the Revolts in Egypt

For several years, the United States has given Egypt billions for the promotion of democracy. We believed that if we ensured Egypt's financial dependence on us, they would be forced to listen to our recommendations about installing democracy. Because those efforts have failed for decades, Obama began to pull funding from Egypt to invest it in more worthwhile prospects.

The United States still heavily supports the Egyptian military with around $1.25 billion per year. However, we used to give $45 million to programs for Governing Justly and Democratically.  Under Obama, it dropped to $20 million.

In the past few days many Egyptians Tweeted about the reasons for their protest and how poor things have gotten recently.  They blame President Mubarak for the deteriorating economy and conditions. They recognize his increasingly brutish tactics used to squelch independent thought and individual success. Coupled with the overthrow of their next door neighbor's dictator in Tunisia, the Egyptians feel quite empowered to reform the government in the way they see fit. I'm not saying it's a good thing.  It's too early for that. Based on the funding cuts by Obama, Jordan was predestined to protest and possibly revolt.

If Obama was truly committed to democracy in Egypt he would cut funding to the Egyptian Military as well.  After all, President Mubarak will inevitably use them against the protesters (I just heard that he has called them in).

I'm intrigued by all the events that led to this and how they will turn out.  I'm far from convinced that the overthrow of two semi-secular dictatorships and replacing them, almost certainly, with yet another Muslim theocracy will lead to anything more sanguine in the Middle East.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Why America is Losing its Religion

All recent studies about religion in America show a steady decrease in religious beliefs and an increase in non-belief and atheism. Distress has grown among American Christians who fear an Atheistic revolution that will seduce righteous youth and negate their religious majority. Fox News has launched an all out assault on anything Atheist. Ringleaders Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck demonize atheists and literally blame the country's problems on them--a la Salem witch trial style. Newt Gingrich openly admitted in his new book that he wants Congress to vote for Pro-Christian laws, a completely unconstitutional and anti-freedom concept. They have opened up with both barrels against non-believers, science, and the first amendment. The biggest fighters are mostly "mainstream" Catholics, Christians and Evangelicals. The "unaffiliated" Christians seem to acknowledge the rights of non-religious.

There are two dominant reasons why more Americans are turning away from religion. The two reasons work together. The first reason is because the religious have developed a sense of "literalism." American Christians, in the past two-hundred years, have demanded that their followers believe in the infallible and literal nature of the Bible. If the Bible says something happened, then by God, it happened just the way it was written. This mentality was not around during the early days of Christianity. It's roots were sown during Reformation when Martin Luther encouraged a personal relationship with God. When commoners began directly accessing the Bible (and believed they wouldn't go to purgatory for their actions) they started interpreting events differently from Roman Catholic Dogmatic law. Without access to other points of view or philosophies or leaders to help interpret the Bible, many sects began taking it literally. In America, literalism seemed to take a great hold on the country from 1800-1900. By comparing the texts of political leaders from the foundation of the country to those after the civil war (both groups primarily Christian), a literal fanaticism slowly tightened its grip on the country in between. The critical analysis of the Bible by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison was replaced by Biblical authority over our national sovereignty and blind faith in its text. Around this time, "In God We Trust" was first printed on our money. Not just any God: The Christian God.

Literalism creates a dilemma for any thinking person. The events in the Bible, if we are to believe them literally, are at times contradictory and other times absurd. For instance, most people recognize the inconsitency of the Gospels (i.e. retelling of Jesus's story). Paul wrote the story about 50 A.D. and was around during the life of Jesus. He never mentions the Resurrection. Yet, 40-50 years later, John gives a detailed description of Jesus's ascension to Heaven and the miraculous Resurrection. Most people would realize something as important as a man rising from the dead would not escape Paul's attention. Some more astute observers would recognize Genesis has countless inconsistencies resulting from its four different authors, yet many Christians hold to the notion that Genesis was written by a single author, Moses, and it is infallible truth. What about the scholars who have found language that didn't exist during the time the Book of Samuel was supposedly written? What about the fact that Jesus wasn't even officially "Divine" until 325 A.D because too many Christians disagreed with the premise? At the risk of going on too long, just look at this chart or this list. It will cause any thinking Christian to question the literal infallibility of the Bible. Instead of reacting reasonably to queries about their faith, evangelicals respond with militant animosity, condemning anything that throws a monkey wrench into their outlandish belief system.

"Christianity" did not start the way literalists/fundamentalists/evangelicals would have you believe. Jesus never said he was the son of God and his followers argued whether he actually was for generations. Jesus preached that people need not appease God, we should rather attend to issues on earth, give to and take care of the poor, spread the wealth, love thy neighbor, don't give into selfishness, etc. God wasn't involved in the finite actions of humans. God was fine up in heaven doing his thing; he didn't need incessant praise. He's God, not a petty human. Humans needed to improve themselves, not beg God for help. Instead of following through with his message, within two generations of his death Jesus was worshipped as God himself, believed to have come back to life, and supposedly demanded fervent and active allegiance to God. A fuller critical analysis of the life and beliefs of Jesus can be found HERE.

Again, when questioned about the motivations behind Biblical texts and why several Christian communities saw fit to include them as holy texts, most American Christians demand blind compliance with the texts' messages. Instead of explaining to followers that these inconsistencies and absurd events are metaphors for proper Christian behavior or that it was written to fulfill Prophecy and not to be considered a factual retelling, or that the various books were written by competing communities with agendas of their own, not individuals, thereby convoluting Jesus's message, church leaders tell the curious to believe in the Bible or risk damnation in Hell for all eternity. Fear of a supernatural justice system keeps hold of many. However, blind compliance doesn't jive with anyone who has a brain, so most people will seek alternate explanations.

The second reason for the loss of faith comes after Christian leaders and churches refuse to give adequate answers to reasonable questions due to their rejection of anything contradicting Biblical literalism. This turns people to look things up for themselves. With all this wonderful technology, online access to scholarly studies, treatises, books, essays, and dissertations, they are quickly exposed to historical interpretations of the Bible, alternative viewpoints, and scientific evidence that thoroughly dismantles a literalistic interpretation of the Bible. They are exposed to massive Atheist communities who openly welcome new members and reassure former Christians that they are not alone, and they will not be condemned to damnation for turning their backs on a nonsensical belief system.

We need look no further than the Middle East to see a culture deformed by literalistic religious tyranny mounting strength on the backs of blind followers. This is a bit unappealing to Christians and they claim to be above it. However, colonial settlers fled religious persecution from Christians, not Muslims. Due to fear of a recurrence in Christian persecution, our First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees no matter how hard fundamentalists and Fox News and Newt Gingrich try, they will not succeed in getting God into the law. For that wonderful inclusion by our founders, I say God Bless America.

Judaism and Catholicism both reject literalism. Catholicism believes the Bible is "inerrant" but truth can be found in metaphor and allegory. Jews can actually disagree entirely with the Torah if they feel justified. They are encouraged to question everything. Judaism allows disagreements so extreme that Jewish Atheism recently evolved. Most Christians in America make their children choose literalism or the highway. "Literalism" is almost entirely an American phenomenon that has spread from Missions to third world countries. This type of Christianity is a self-perpetuating control mechanism that should be ignored and it appears that more and more people are starting to agree.