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James Dobson Needs My Money (and an Education)

James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, was good enough to send me a letter a few years ago. Not a personal letter—he basically just wants me to give him some of my money—but a letter nonetheless. He outlined some of his views about the Christian foundation our country was built on, reported how our country is going to hell in a jet-propelled handbasket, and made the irresistible swipe at homosexuality.

In case he forgot to send you one, I’ve highlighted a few interesting bits of his letter to reply to.

America is a Christian Nation! (Or something.)

Our Founding Fathers clearly understood the relationship between Christian Truth and the stability of our (then) new nation. Here are just a few quotes that express that essential connection.

And he goes on to quote mine the founding fathers’ writings to find their most pro-Christian statements. This desire is irresistible to many history revisionists today, so let me try to apply the brakes.

When pundits bring up quotes from the founders, you know that they’re out of arguments. The U.S. Constitution is the law of the land, regardless of what the founders thought, wrote, or wanted. They had their chance to define how the country should be run, and they seized it. That document was revolutionary at the time and now, with a few amendments, effectively governs us more than two centuries later. It supersedes any other writings of the founders. Christianity has its place within society thanks to the Constitution, not vice versa.

Thomas Jefferson, … revisionists tell us, wanted a “wall of separation” to protect the government from people of faith.

No need for revisionists—Thomas Jefferson himself talked about “a wall of separation between church and state.” And, to be precise, the First Amendment protects the people (whether or not of faith) from the government, not the other way around.

Dobson then goes on to give a long quote by Abraham Lincoln. Well, not really by Lincoln. This was a Senate resolution for a National Fast Day signed by Lincoln. And this was the same Lincoln who said, “When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That’s my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion.”

This was the same Lincoln who said, “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures have become clearer and stronger with advancing years, and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.”

The private Lincoln wasn’t the strong Christian that Dobson imagines. (And it wouldn’t change the Constitution if he were.)

We are witnessing an unprecedented campaign to secularize our society and “de-moralize” our institutions from the top down. … Most forms of prayer have been declared unconstitutional in the nation’s schools. The Ten Commandments have been prohibited on school bulletin boards. … In this wonderful Land of the Free, we have gagged and bound all of our public officials, our teachers, our elected representatives, and our judges.

Again: read the Constitution, our 100% secular Constitution. Prayer should never have been allowed in schools in the first place—not after the 14th Amendment, anyway. Ten Commandments in courthouses or in schools? Clearly out of step with the Constitution.

I don’t want to see Christian citizens gagged; I want them to have the same public speech rights that I do. But when you’re acting as a public official, teacher, or elected representative, the rules are different. The First Amendment demands that you create an unbiased environment. Evangelism with prayer or religious documents is forbidden. Dobson somehow finds this a shocking new realization, but the First Amendment was adopted in 1791.

As a secularist, I know when to stop. I’m only asking that the First Amendment be followed. I want no Christian preferences—such as “In God We Trust” as the motto, prayers before government meetings, Creationism in schools, crosses on public land, and so on—but when we have reached that secular situation, I will stop. I’m not striving for a society where Christianity is illegal. (See what a good friend a secular Constitution is for the Christian?)

But I see no stopping point on the other side, no unambiguous standard that all Christians are striving for. If they got prayer back in schools, what would be next?

The sky is falling. Or not.

Since we have effectively censored their expressions of faith in public life, the predictable is happening: a generation of young people is growing up with very little understanding of the spiritual principles on which our country was founded. And we wonder why so many of them can kill, steal, take drugs, and engage in promiscuous sex with no pangs of conscience.

I wonder what happens when Christianity fades away? Does that society devolve into the post-apocalyptic Mad Max world that Dobson imagines?

Let’s compare other Western societies to find out. Looking at quantifiable social metrics (such as homicides, incarceration, juvenile mortality, STDs, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, and income disparity) in 17 Western countries, a 2009 study concluded: “Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.”1

Ouch—religiosity is inversely correlated with social health. Sorry, Dr. Dobson.

The obligatory attack on the gays

It is breathtaking to see how hostile our government has become to traditional marriage, and how both Democrats and Republicans are increasingly antagonistic to parental rights, Christian training, and the financial underpinnings of family life.

I assume that “hostile … to traditional marriage” refers to same-sex marriage. I got married 33 years ago, and my state of Washington has legalized same-sex marriage. I’m still waiting for any sign of hostility or belligerence (or even annoyance or crankiness) to my marriage. So far, nothing.

Help me understand this. At a time when Christian traditionalists like Dobson lament the high divorce rate and the acceptability of couples living together and even having children outside marriage, they dismiss a group that is actually embracing marriage.

Same-sex marriage is a celebration of marriage, not an attack. A simple reframing, and a problem turns into an solution. But of course Dobson doesn’t benefit from solutions; he profits only from continued tension.

The hope of the future is prayer and a spiritual renewal that will sweep the nation. It has happened before, and with concerted prayer, could occur again. … If we continue down the road we are now traveling, I fear for us all.

Yeah, an even stronger Christian fundamentalism does sound like a worrisome future since we’ve seen that secular, gay-loving Europe eclipses the U.S. in social metrics.

Yeah, but I need money

Candidly, this ministry continues to struggle financially, and our very survival will depend on the generosity of our constituents in the next two months.

Translated: “Give me some money.”

Please pray with us about the future of this ministry.

Translated: “Give me some money.” (I’ve written before about how prayer requests of this sort admit that prayer is useless.)

I suppose that this kind of lashing out at other people brings in the money. But it’d be nice to see more credible arguments.

The Christian resolution to find the world ugly and bad
has made the world ugly and bad.
— Friedrich Nietzsche

1Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions,” Evolutionary Psychology, www.epjournal.net (2009). 7(3): 416.

(This is a modified version of a post originally published 11/21/11.)

Photo credit: Refracted Moments

About Bob Seidensticker
  • RichardSRussell

    The likelihood that America is a Christian nation is directly proportional to the number of occurrences of the words “Jesus”, “Christ”, “God”, “Bible”, and “Christianity” in the US Constitution.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Yeah, but there aren’t any references!

      Oh …

  • Rick

    Nice recycle of a 2011 post. Running out of fresh atheist material?

    • Machintelligence

      There’s nothing wrong with playing a “golden oldie” once in a while. I, for one, missed it the first time through.

      • arkenaten

        Me too. It’s a good post. Saves me trawling the archives. Let Bob do it!
        Nice one.

    • RichardSRussell

      I heard Beethoven’s 9th Symphony once.
      Why would I ever want to listen to it again?

    • Mick

      That’s one good thing about Christianity; the bible is being constantly updated with all the latest information.

  • Rain

    Candidly, this ministry continues to struggle financially, and our very survival will depend on the generosity of our constituents in the next two months.

    There is a medical diagnostic term called “frank”, as in frankly, where the patient is so bad off that the patient will be frank about possibly embarrassing symptoms. However when a religious huckster speaks “candidly” about money, it’s time to put on the baloney detectors.

  • Greg G.

    Let’s compare other Western societies to find out. Looking at quantifiable social metrics (such as homicides, incarceration, juvenile mortality, STDs, abortions, adolescent pregnancies, marriage duration, and income disparity) in 17 Western countries, a 2009 study concluded: “Of the 25 socioeconomic and environmental indicators, the most theistic and procreationist western nation, the U.S., scores the worst in 14 and by a very large margin in 8, very poorly in 2, average in 4, well or very in 4, and the best in 1.”

    I did something similar for a few of those categories for the state level and saw a correspondence between religiousity and detrimental conditions. I’ve seen it claimed that the correspondence can be found at the county level. I suspect it’s fractally true down to the compartments of individual minds.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      The surprising thing about Gregory Paul’s work is that he doesn’t have more competitors. I haven’t seen other sources of this qualify-of-life comparison. Further, I haven’t seen any religious detractors who try to spin his work to defuse its power. (But perhaps I’ve missed it.)

      The other question that Paul touches on but can’t answer with authority is, Why? Does religion cause these bad conditions? His hypothesis is the opposite: that bad conditions drives people to religion.

      • WalterP

        The surprising thing about Gregory Paul’s work is that he doesn’t have
        more competitors. I haven’t seen other sources of this qualify-of-life
        comparison. Further, I haven’t seen any religious detractors who try to
        spin his work to defuse its power. (But perhaps I’ve missed it.)

        Since he published this article in a journal unrelated to both the topic at hand and his own training, I am fairly certain no serious scholar has ever read his work.

        I’m loving that IN THE VERY SAME POST you are stating your disgust with a child psychologist doing ideologically-driven revisionist history, you proudly cite a paleontologist (??) doing ideologically-driven poorly-conceptualized sociology.

        Anti-intellectualism seems to be fine if it’s your team, yet it’s unacceptable if it disagrees with your ideology. This is what we call being prejudiced against a particular type of people.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Wow. Gregory Paul has already been tried and convicted. Good thing we have you to point out the charlatans.

          When you get the chance, show me the errors in his work. I missed them.

        • WalterP

          Among the criticisms are lack of clarity in his definitions and concepts
          of “religion” and “secular”, too much reliance on scatter plots instead
          of multivariate and multiple regression analysis which single out
          variables from complex phenomena to better source the probable causes of
          any correlations, and not indicating the limits of his sources of data
          in such as the diverse linguistical understanding of “religion” in all
          cultures in the data used.

          (Wikipedia)

          In other words, this paper probably wouldn’t have made it through a college-level stats class, much less should it be cited as evidence of anything scientific.

          He’s the James Dobson of religious studies.

        • WalterP

          Kind of funny that you claimed his work didn’t have competitors without even checking his wikipedia article.

          Blind faith in your movement’s leaders may not be a positive attribute in your circles; you should be careful.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Kind of funny that you flamed away with a snarky comment without seeing what the evidence actually was.

          You should be careful.

        • WalterP

          See link above.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Or not. Here’s the conclusion of the one citation that the Wikipedia article gives for that quote:

          As mentioned earlier, Paul’s investigation should be applauded for bringing to the attention of scholars an important and neglected problem–the relationship between worldview commitments and societal health. Paul’s work brings to the fore the importance of various beliefs for the prosperity of democratic polities. At the same time, however, its methodological problems do not allow for any conclusive statement to be advanced regarding the various hypotheses Paul seeks to demonstrate or falsify. What one can state with certainty is that one cannot in any way be certain as to the effects of religiosity and secularism upon prosperous democracies at least as based upon the methods and data of Paul’s study.

          Thanks for the prodding. Looks like a vindication of Paul’s work that I wasn’t aware of.

        • WalterP

          You must not read a lot of scholarly work. What you’ve quoted is a polite but thorough dismissal, a consoling pat on the head generally given to students who fail out of stats 101.

          From the same article you cite “vindicating” Paul’s work:

          It is the opinion of the authors that once all of the methodological issues are considered, Paul’s findings and conclusions are rendered ineffectual.

          http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2006/2006-1.pdf

          He’s the James Dobson of religious studies. If you like science done well, it’s time to find a new scholar Bob.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Thanks for the James Dobson joke. I was even funnier with the repetition.

          What I cite of Paul is the facts about the correlation of various social metrics and religiosity. I didn’t refer to his conclusions.

        • WalterP

          Still haven’t read that article, huh? Citing the correlations is still deeply problematic because of how poorly conceptualized his measures are. Do you have a response to this, or are you just believing his shoddy correlations on faith?

          No one’s making you go down with the ship, Bob. And it’s not particularly admirable to watch you desperately bail water from the badly damaged hull. You claimed he was unchallenged, and clearly that was an erroneous statement, and in fact he’s been deemed wrong by several scholars.

          But it is fun to see the guy swearing allegiance to the scientific consensus suddenly changes course when scholarship says his golden-boy dinosaur expert is a wrong. What do those “scholars” know anyway?

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Golly, your concern is overwhelming.

          I’m looking at just the data. Dobson imagines a correlation in which less Christianity is a bad thing. I show a correlation where less Christianity is a good thing. Problem?

          You claimed he was unchallenged

          Wrong, wrong, wrong. For someone who’s got it all figured out, you don’t really have it all figured out.

          But it is fun to see the guy swearing allegiance to the scientific consensus suddenly changes course when scholarship says his golden-boy dinosaur expert is a wrong.

          I follow the scientific consensus, yes. And the contradiction is … ?

          And why are you here, anyway? To learn something? To share some information that we may not be aware of? Share some insights, perhaps? Or just waiting for (what seems to you to be) an error and then highlighting it with glee?

          This is what we call being an asshole.

        • WalterP

          So instead of responding to the charges (made by scholars and published in a peer-reviewed journal) that his flawed conceptualizations essentially sink the whole project, including his now inherently meaningless correlations of meaningless concepts…

          or explaining why you’re refusing to grant your promised deference to what the experts tell us about this study…

          your response instead is to call me an asshole.

          Doesn’t seem like this is really about good and bad arguments for you, is it?

          This is what we call being prejudiced against a particular type of people.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          So instead of acknowledging your error, and instead of clarifying your statement about your delight in seeing “the guy swearing allegiance to the scientific consensus suddenly changes course,” you change the subject.

          Is this your value? Just being the burr under the saddle for no good reason except for the sheer pleasure of being annoying? Your energy would be great if devoted to actually moving the conversation forward. Teach us something. Show us something we didn’t understand before.

          You don’t like to respond to my comments. I guess they make you feel uncomfortable. But let me respond to yours: I missed the part where his data was incorrect. Show me.

        • WalterP

          Let me try again, since you haven’t read the link yet:

          http://moses.creighton.edu/jrs/2006/2006-1.pdf

          Poor conceptualization destroys the whole argument. I could find correlations between vaccinations and autism if I conceptualized things poorly enough. When someone points out how flawed my conceptualizations are, I don’t get to retreat to my pure “data” and claim the correlations are still correct: I’ve sunk the whole project. And that’s what these scholars are pointing out Paul has done: poorly constructed conceptualizations that render his conclusions “ineffectual.”

          I’ve never seen someone so in love with bad science; you should think about getting a job at the Creationist Museum.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Oh, so the data is correct then. Since I don’t rely
          on Paul’s conclusions, whether they’re celebrated or rejected, it doesn’t much matter.

          And you’ve done nothing to argue that, in this contest between two papers, the one that you like is the one that we should trust.

        • WalterP

          I’m losing track of how wildly inconsistent Bob has been in a single thread:

          “Gregory Paul’s work has no competitors” when clearly there is an entire body of work that points out how poor his work is, warranting an entire section of his Wikipedia article.

          Bob tried to pass the Moreno-Riano et al. piece as a “complete vindication” of Paul’s work without reading it. That piece actually concludes his poor conceptualization and methodology render his conclusions “ineffectual.”

          Bob then says he never promoted Paul’s “conclusions,” just his correlations. Seeing that Paul’s statistical skills seem to be incapable of doing anything beyond correlations, endorsing the correlations is an endorsement of conclusions; there’s nothing Bob isn’t endorsing from the article.

          Then Bob seems to retreat from correlations to “data,” as if, again, data can stand outside of faulty conceptualizations. The problem is, as we’ve known since Immanuel Kant, data never stands outside our own conceptualizations and categories. If I’ve conceptualized “wealthy people” as including poor and rich people, I don’t get to claim my data is still correct when you point out I conceptualized wealthy people incorrectly.

          Then Bob says he’s never “relied” on Paul’s conclusions, but that makes his act of countering Dobson with Paul unintelligible. If you’re drawing on Paul without drawing on his conclusions, you might as well be countering Dobson with an apple pie recipe.

          Now for the final twist Bob is going to retreat from his previous canonization of the deterministic development of scientific knowledge. In the past, he admitted science has been wrong but he celebrated its standardized procedure to correct itself: pluralism of opinion gets ironed out eventually and the “best” knowledge emerges victorious. Yet in the present case when we see that process at work–several subsequent peer-reviewed published articles dismantling Paul’s claims and advancing our knowledge of the issue at hand–Bob abandons faith in the scientific process. How are we to decide which is a better paper, he asks? Previously he had such high faith in the power of human reasoning and the irrefutability of empirically-supported arguments to deliver us the hard, critically examined answers. Yet when Moreno-Riano et al. step up to the plate to do just that, Bob suddenly gets disinterested in reasoning and evidence. He certainly refuses to engage their critiques in any meaningful way.

          Spin job after spin job, rather than just engaging the facts of research and admitting Paul’s wrong and you were wrong for citing him. This is what we call being prejudiced against a particular type of people.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I’m losing track of how many times Walter is mischaracterizing me. I mean, it’s all in this comment thread. How hard is it? (I mean: how hard is it if you don’t have an agenda?)

          “Gregory Paul’s work has no competitors”

          This is not something I said.

          Bob tried to pass the Moreno-Riano et al. piece as a “complete vindication” of Paul’s work

          And, again, I didn’t say this. Missed the class about accurate citations, I guess? Accuracy doesn’t seem to be a priority.

          there’s nothing Bob isn’t endorsing from the article.

          Wrong again. Strike 3.

          Then Bob says he’s never “relied” on Paul’s conclusions, but that makes his act of countering Dobson with Paul unintelligible.

          I realize that Walter has no use for it, but just in case anyone else reading missed it, Dobson talks about a correlation (more religious = better), though with no data. I showed some actual data that contradicts that claim. I ask for Walter to show me the problem; he ignores me.

          Good—I guess there’s no problem.

          Yet in the present case when we see that process at work

          I’ve also pointed out to Walter that there is no scientific consensus here (which was the topic before). That’s inconvenient for him, so he ignores that and repeats the same claim.

          Wow—what a waste of time this guy is.

        • WalterP

          I showed some actual data that contradicts that claim.

          You are providing endless amounts of evidence here that you never opened the Moreno-Riano et al piece. To help you out:

          Conceptualizations flawed=correlations flawed=data flawed.

          It might be easier to just admit you’re intellectually too lazy to engage the critiques of your golden-boy dinosaur scholar-wanna-be social scientist. Critiques and counter-arguments are hard after all. What’s easier is unwarranted, dogmatic beliefs about people you don’t like.

          This is what we call being prejudiced against a particular type of people.

  • avalon

    Isn’t it amazing how these guys can discern God’s will? When bad things happen in this country it’s God’s punishment, but when bad things happen to them (“I broke my clavicle, my scapula, and bloodied my back, and then spent the next 17 days in three hospitals. I have never experienced such pain…” ) it’s a blessing from God (“God has been so good to me, not just this time but through the years.”).

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      I’ve heard God called the “ultimate unfalsifiable hypothesis.”


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