Thursday, January 19, 2017

The New Federalist Papers: Manifesto for a Third Political Party

“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
Winston Churchill.

“Never let a crisis go to waste.”
Winston Churchill.

When, in the course of human events, you find yourself gaping at the day’s news in disbelief, perhaps it is time to set a new course. When you find that, despite your best intentions, you have elected a president who is the very antithesis of everything the founding fathers stood for, perhaps it’s time to reconsider your blind allegiance to an existing political party. When you see your elected congressmen refuse to even consider a presidential Supreme Court nominee for an entire year, perhaps it’s time to do away with the childish petulance and obstructionism that pervades our capital. When you find that your congressmen have defeated a bill to allow importation of low cost medicine from Canada, supposedly due to “safety concerns” but really due to greedy pharmaceutical industry lobbying forces, perhaps it is time to realize that your elected officials don’t really have your best interests at heart. When you find xenophobia on the rise in the very country that was built on the backs of immigrants, perhaps it’s time to rethink our direction.
It’s time for all good men (and women) to come to the aid of their country. Almost 250 years after the founding of the United States, we stand as the most powerful nation in the world but we are also disillusioned with our recent political history and apprehensive of the doomsday predictions stating that no empire has ever lasted more than 250 years. We stand at a pivotal moment in our history. We can reclaim our position as the leader of the free world or we can go down in flames brought on by our own hubris, choking on the bureaucracy and back stabbing in our own government. We must stop our bickering and plan for a future that is not just four or eight years away but one that is fifty and a hundred years away, a legacy that we will be proud to leave to our children and grandchildren.
We must reverse the recent vilification of American policies overseas and, as the most prosperous and advanced nation in the world, we must extend a helping hand to those who need it. Building walls, creating a Muslim registry, restarting the nuclear arms race, and slapping anti-competitive tariffs on imported goods are all steps in the wrong direction that will hurt us in the long run. The problems of the Middle East will not be solved with guns and violence. We’ve tried that policy for a hundred years and it has resulted in nothing but more dead bodies, more dollars wasted on the military industrial complex, and more generations of disillusioned and suicidal “enemy combatants”. We must recognize that we had a large part in the creation of the modern Middle East after World War I and that the only path out of the current crisis is education and economic self-sufficiency, not more guns and bullets.

The biggest problem we face today, in my opinion, is that our country is split right down the middle with the two party system. The middle class and poor feel they’re not being represented properly and take their anger and frustration out during election season, seesawing from one party to the other, voting for “the opposition”, even if they know in their heart of hearts that the opposition is not really going to solve their problems.

The two party system is killing this country. It seems the country is split right down the middle on most issues: 51% to 49%. In a world where decisions of political import are made based on such thin margins, we all lose.

My aim here is to create a third political party, one that will have broad popular appeal because it stands on high moral ground and actually works to reform the government, not one that just perpetuates the status quo. I’m not interested in creating yet another party that gets barely one or two percent of the vote, not really helping but instead hurting the chances of existing candidates. In fact, I propose a priori that we abandon this party if it fails to reach ten percent of the population within a year.

I fully recognize that most of my proposals here are close to those espoused by the Democratic Party and, as such, may hurt that party more than the Republicans. My hope is that a large subset of the Republicans out there will also see the folly of what they did in 2016 and will vote with their conscience rather than their outrage, with their brains instead of their wallets. My target audience, in fact, is not the current democrat and republican die-hard. My target audience is the other half of America that doesn't even bother to vote today: The Silent Majority.
I’ve lived in this country for almost forty years. I’ve benefited from American democracy, American ingenuity, and American hospitality during that entire time. I’ve had a successful career, a prosperous life, and a comfortable existence throughout all those years. I’ve never been a political person, not even bothering to vote in elections until recently. I was too busy making money, raising a family, living my life to be bothered with politics. Besides, I found most politicians are the same. Despite the catchiest phrases, they rarely rise to the occasion and actually help their constituents. Corruption and bureaucracy are so pervasive in the public arena today, it seems, that even the best intentioned politicians and civil servants give up sooner or later.
In an attempt to make sense out of the current political turmoil in the United States (and around the world), I decided to write down some of my thoughts on policy. It may seem na├»ve but, at least, it’s a start. My hope is to find similarly minded individuals who are tired of the morass in Washington and are willing and able to roll up their sleeves and help. I don’t see either of the current political parties as capable of doing so. The Republican Party, frankly, is in a state of chaos and likely to implode soon due to infighting - despite the fact that they just won! The Democratic Party seems like a deer in the headlights, trying to figure out what they did wrong to lose the recent elections. Both parties have veered far from their mainstream constituents and seem more interested in collecting money from lobbyists and getting votes from the lunatic fringe than in fixing problems. Campaign promises are no longer even kept until Inauguration Day.

The last straw for me was the fact that both republican and democrat congressmen voted against importing cheap medicine from Canada - due to “safety concerns”. Right after they tried to shut down the ethics office that oversees their behavior! Donald Trump is not the problem. He is a symptom. Our government is sick.
The solution is not to have the same sets of politicians duke it out in DC while we all go back to work in our respective hometowns. The solution, in my humble opinion, is to state what we, as informed citizens, really want and to hold our politicians accountable. That will require a real “draining of the swamp” that the current clowns in charge are not capable of.

To the extent that we are not happy with the policies of the two prevailing parties, it is up to us to articulate what we do want. Clearly, sitting around and waiting for the right thing to happen has not helped. The current two party system is not going to solve our problems because both sides have dug in their heels and are too indebted to lobbying (be it from pharmaceutical companies or the NRA or Wall Street) to “do the right thing”.
I don’t claim to be a politician nor to have any political aspirations. All I can do is list my opinions and hope that you will agree with enough of them to join my cause. I am hopeful that the shenanigans of the past few years have awakened everyone to the need for fundamental and radical change in our government. I am not hopeful that the current batch of politicians are on a path to address those issues nor do I see real reform happening.

The only alternative is to start with a clean sheet of paper and incorporate the lessons of the past. I hope I have captured some of these wishes below. I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert in any of the policy issues listed below. But You need to start somewhere.

I’m always open to constructive feedback. I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of critical topics and I suspect my stance is perhaps unintentionally harsh in some respects. I’m willing to listen and change some of the items listed below. In some cases, such as immigration policy or privatization, I’ve made broad assertions but it needs much more specificity. I beseech experts to weigh in and help. Apathy is no longer an option.
Now, then, we hold these truths to be self evident:
Campaign Reform. Our candidates will only run for the last three months of any political campaign, six months for the presidential race. Anything more is excessive and a waste of taxpayer money. The fact that we just spent more than 1.5 years arguing about a four year presidency proves my point.

Our elected officials vow not to work as a lobbyist for ten years after their term ends.

We will work to outlaw the practice of gerrymandering.

We will vote for term limits for elected officials.

We will work to repeal the current electoral process. Its historical roots in slavery should be sufficient cause to do so even if its recent mishaps had not happened. I can understand special rules for making sure less populous states get proper representation in congress but it makes no sense to use such rules when we’re picking the president of the country. “One citizen, one vote” should be just that.

We will not accept contributions from corporations of any kind, only from non-profit organizations, charities, and scientific endowments such as universities.

Our party members will not, under any circumstances, meet with or engage with any industry lobbyists. This is more than a funding statement. It says we want all lobbyists gone from our politics. The democrats and republicans are welcome to continue to meet with and work with industry lobbyists. We, as a party, will not. Period.

Nominations. Candidates for public office should be nominated by the people as a first step. The current model, wherein any random individual can decide they want to run for office and initiate a campaign, will never result in the best people in office. If you ask me, anyone who wants to be president should automatically be disqualified. It should be an honor you earn, not one you seek. Same applies to most other public office positions. It is a perversion that we spend billions of dollars electing our politicians. And given the lot we seem to be stuck with, I dare say it’s money not well spent.

There is a first step missing in our election process - the nomination of worthy candidates by the people. I envision a simple online process through which party members can recommend any upstanding citizen as a candidate for public office. Only the top “vote getters” would even be given the option of running for office as a representative of the party. The individual can, of course, decline the nomination for any reason but accepting the nomination means he or she stands by all the tenets of the party (see critical ones below).

Transparency. All our party communication, both internal and external, will be made available publicly through a website. Putting "Attorney Client Privileged" on an email or marking it as "Confidential" will not be honored. Don't send us an email, contract, or even a text message if you don't want to see it on the web within, say, 24 hours. The 24 hours will be used to "stop" items such as national security issues to be inadvertently published. But the default will be to automatically publish unless someone manually interferes. Believe me, this is the only way to address the hacking problem.

We strongly support the first amendment including the right of citizens and news organizations to criticize their government.

We condemn racism of any type. I can't believe I even have to say that, in this day and age. But I guess I do.

We support LGBT rights.
Gun Reform. We will fight to put common sense limits on the second amendment. All you NRA folks, please don't send me any hate mail. You have the democrats and republicans to do your bidding. It's a free country, after all. Isn't it? You have the right to argue that you need a bazooka and military grade machine gun to protect yourself but no “reasonable” person would agree with you, especially given recent massacres.

I, on the other hand, will argue that it makes sense to do background checks, have waiting periods, and to limit weapons to "self defense" single shot weapons.

If you were honest with yourself, you would admit that we don't live in the same world as 1791. And guns are not the same as what they used to be in 1791. And most of us are not in a “militia” of any sort, as speculated by the text of the amendment. Our schools, our city halls, our airports, and our movie theaters are not appropriate places to carry a gun. Most modern nations seem to do just fine with much less gun violence and meaningless slaughter of innocents every year.

But you don't want to be logical. I'm sorry but you have your opinion and I have mine. Please go work with the democrats and republicans who are willing to put up with your illogical arguments. Our party will not be influenced by the NRA and will fight to stop the madness that today’s gun-crazy culture has created.

Tax Reform. We will fight for a radically simplified tax model, preferably a fixed percentage. If you don’t believe the current tax system is outdated and unfair, I refer you to Mr. Trump’s tax returns for the past eighteen years.

Estate Tax: Yes, please. Seems like a logical way to redistribute wealth and also avoid several generations of orange haired freeloaders, if you know what I mean. Decide on some reasonable number for their inheritance - one million, five million, ten million - but not more. The rest goes back to society. If they want to leave it to charity during their lifetimes, that's up to them and also a positive outcome. Many billionaires are already opting for that option anyway.

Internet Policy: We will immediately outlaw all IPv4 addresses on the Internet. Okay, just wanted to see if you were still paying attention.

Criminal Justice. The US has the highest per capita rate of incarceration in the world by far, almost seven times that of Germany. Our courts are choked with frivolous lawsuits. We will work for reform, reduced sentences, and decriminalization of petty crimes. See also section on gun control. Reduced availability of guns will naturally result in lower crime rates in the long run. If you don't believe me, go read Steven Pinker’s brilliant The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

Healthcare. We will fight for the right of a woman to have abortions. An abortion is a complex decision and the woman is the person in the best position to make that decision. Not lawmakers, not doctors, not even family. A child must be loved and nurtured. Bringing more unwanted people into the world will not help anyone in society. In my opinion, religion is overstepping the bounds and influencing government decisions. Put aside the dogma and think about the societal impact. That would be the humane thing to do. As George Carlson famously said, “Not every ejacukation deserves a name.”

We will fight for the right to assisted suicide. As our population gets older, we must come to grips with death and we must be willing to let people die with dignity when they are ready to do so. We should be measuring not just “life expectancy” but “healthy life expectancy”.

Health Care costs are astronomically high in the US and for no good reason whatsoever other than greediness. We will work towards healthcare reform and reduced costs for everyone. We will also fight for the ability of citizens to buy cheap medicine from Canada.

Stem Cell research: Yes, please. If we don't do it, other countries will. Yet another industry we will fall behind on - genetic engineering. The industry and researchers are already doing a great job of self-policing to avoid ethical issues. Government intrusion here is purely based on religious influence and inappropriate given separation of church and state

Fiscal Policy. We will push for an overhaul of the current economic system with an eye towards additional consumer protection.

As a capitalist country, we have created tremendous wealth but we have also shown again and again over the past century that our system is very fragile. Everything from the Great Depression to the housing market crash to the dot com bubble shows that irrational exuberance, when combined with shrewd operators, often results in a bubble and a pursuant crash.

Unsurprisingly, the common man ends up holding the bag each time. The maxim “The Rich get richer, the poor get poorer” is only half the story. Men who make their millions by working in industry are, presumably, adding value. They make money by inventing a new technology or delivering a critical service. In the process, they also create entire ecosystems and jobs that stimulate the economy. The bankers on Wall Street who repackage debts, on the other hand, what “value” do they add, exactly? Why is it that we had to bail out the big banks again? And with taxpayer money? Every time we think we have our enough guardrails in place, a new generation comes along and finds a new way to abuse our system - be it Bernie Madoff or the executives at Enron. We need stricter controls over wall street.
We will work to bring back the hundreds of billions of dollars of high tech money stuck overseas. It is unreasonable to expect economic growth all while holding vast sums of money hostage with large tax bills. We will work to negotiate a reasonable and swift compromise with the tech industry to bring a much needed infusion into our economy.

Education. We must invest massively in improving our public education system as well as our private schools. The United States ranks near or at the bottom of every list when it comes to literacy, science, and math education. As the most advanced country on the planet, we should be investing in the future of our children by offering them opportunities to learn skills that will pay off twenty or thirty years from now. That means massive increases in STEM education, reduced emphasis on standardized tests, increased salaries for high performing teachers, and additional funding for scientific research of all types.

More broadly, we need to rethink Education for the next generation of children. Education through rote memorization, learning formulas and theorems without really understanding how those formulas and theorems impact us in the real world - that type of education has scaled to its limits. We now have many adults who are highly educated but not really qualified for the workforce. We need education that inspires children and opens their minds to the possibilities that science and the arts bring us. Not education that requires the passing of standardized tests that block out all creativity. How about someone like Salman Khan of Khan Academy or Sir Ken Robinson for Secretary of Education?

Environment. We will fight for climate control. We have come too far to go back now. Climate change is real. Get over it.

The right answer here is not to deny facts and “tree hug” the old industries of coal and automotive. The right answer is to rethink those needs - e.g., Tesla.

Religion. We will fight for complete separation of church and state - much more so than today. Religion is a personal choice and should not have any sway on the governing decisions of a modern country.

We will also fight for “Freedom of Belief”, including Atheism and Agnosticism. We welcome (in fact, encourage) Atheists to join the party. Atheism is a legitimate worldview and should be allowed equal time and attention in our political discourse. The US is a religious country but Atheists are a growing subset of the demographic. As much as 30% of the population categorize themselves as atheist or agnostic. The fact that a single lone representative in congress admits to being an Atheist shows that Atheists are not represented appropriately in local, state, and federal government.

Middle East Policy. We will work towards complete withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq - except for peacekeeping troops under NATO or UN control. Every day we spend in those countries in a military capacity is a day we spend alienating the local populace and creating the next generation of martyrs. Take the trillion dollars a year we spend on those two wars and spend it on internal infrastructure improvement projects and job creation.

The way to help the Middle East is not by spending a trillion dollars a year on military presence. It's by spending a fraction of that money in community development and outreach, setting up local schools that train doctors and engineers and scientists and entrepreneurs. It will take a dozen years but it will pay off much more handsomely than the current approach.

Those countries need to sustain themselves. Which means they need to be part of the global economy. Which means they need to be competitive in some of these forward-looking fields that will be relevant fifty years from Now. Look at what electronics has done for Japan in the past half century. Look at what computer science has done for India in just a few decades: an entire generation of engineers able to compete at a global level. Spend the money on educating the children of the middle east and help them help themselves in the process. Teach a man to fish...

Immigration Policy. No, we are not going to build a wall. Get real and grow up. Ever heard of tunnels? Ever heard of boats? Ever heard of planes? Stop wasting taxpayer money with your insane 19th century ideas that don't even begin to address the problem yet somehow manage to cost a trillion dollars and alienate us from our neighbors.
There is no room for xenophobia in the 21st century, especially not in a country that was built on the backs of immigrants. We will not build a wall, we will not have a Muslim registry, we will not slap tariffs on foreign goods, we will not walk away from our global obligations.

We are the country we are because we took in millions of immigrants who have worked hard to make this country what it is. We will not turn our backs on them. Every time we've done that in the past (the Japanese internment camps, for example), we've come to regret it deeply in the long run.

Social Welfare. We need to overhaul the social security and Medicare programs. Population growth and aging trends mean we will have twice as many people depending on these programs when our children are ready to retire than we do today. At the current rate, we are not on a path to deliver a high quality of life to those individuals most in need of help. Such improvements will require more systematic efforts than just subsidizing food and medicine. We need to significantly reduce current sources of disease (obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes) by improving overall health awareness, increasing our emphasis on exercise, reducing sugar and fat in our diet, and educating the next generation about healthy living. We will be the only party not influenced by the corn lobby, by the beef lobby, by the sugar lobby.

Privatization. We will work to privatize large portions of government. Before you have a cow, hear me out on this. Privatization is the only way we will get modernization and a reduction of bureaucracy. Yes, I am well aware of the problems with privatization but you can't honestly look me in the eye and tell me the model we have in Washington, DC, is better - or, for that matter, the model we have in any of statehouses or city town halls in our country.

If you don't believe me, let’s look at a few examples.

Look at what it takes to do jury duty. Months of preparation, mail sent out, delays sought, days of work missed, finally you show up on the fateful day. You find out you are one of several hundred other citizens trying to do their civic duty but also deeply annoyed at the ineffectiveness of the system. Entire days wasted sitting in waiting rooms, listening to lawyers asking the same three questions from a hundred other people, twiddling your thumbs the whole time. Multiply that by the number of people sitting in all jury selection waiting rooms around the country and tell me there is no way we could improve on it using a computerized screening system. The level of bureaucracy in our government is unbelievable. Billions of dollars are spent on programs that could easily be improved upon, if we all just agree to move our government to the 21st century.

How about our voting system as another example? Seriously? Hanging chads? Manual recounts? Voting booths? Standing in line for hours? Are you sure we couldn't possibly do any better using computers and software designed by reputable private companies? And please don't lecture me about Russian hackers. They are already here and they are already influencing our elections. The only way to solve this is to make the voting infrastructure rock solid, not to continue to depend on 19th century technology.

How about healthcare? Are we really, in this day and age, in the 21st century, still filling out pieces of paper every time we go to the doctor’s office? Last name, First name, Date of Birth, Address, Family History of Disease, Any drug allergies? Really? And we think we can't do any better?

We trust Apple and Google with our credit card information but we don't trust them with our basic identity And health info? HIPPA compliance and consumer privacy are, of course, important. But, once again, we are stuck using 19th century technologies due to too much government intervention.

Let's get serious about a National ID card. Only a private company (or a consortium of companies) can deliver this, not the government. Maybe it's just your social security number - it just also happens to offer online access to your personal data when needed. Maybe it’s offered through Maybe it's stored on my iPhone and only accessible to third parties when I receive a request and enter a PIN. The smartphone has finally solved the two factor authentication problem effectively - if we only let it do its job. We can figure out the privacy issues. Continuing to live in the 19th century is not an option.

No one can look at the events of the past few years, WikiLeaks, Russian hacking, etc. and believe for one minute that their data is safe today. The answer is not to run and hide and avoid online presence. That way lies obsolescence. The answer is to embrace the technology and help improve it. Open Source can be used to get more eyeballs on the code and identify potential issues. The more people that use a technology, the more scrutiny that technology gets, the more likely it is to be a secure product in the long haul.

I’ve given only a few examples above of areas that we can innovate to help our citizens but I don’t believe, for an instant, that we can get there anytime soon if the government is running these modernization efforts - hence the call for privatization of large portions of the government. Instead of having politicians and lobbyists argue about some of these issues for decades, let’s roll up our sleeves and build them with the help of private industry. It will take a few years,  but in the process, we’ll stimulate the economy and our lives will be better for it.

Conclusion. The chart below is absolutely stunning. Humanity is so much better off now than we were even just fifty years ago. Even as world population has gone up, we have generated massive wealth and improved our collective lives in the process. I could include other charts showing health trends, crime trends, education trends, etc. all getting massively better over time. But I won't. Others have done a great job of covering those trends.

Much of this massive improvement is due to our system of commerce, our system of innovation, our system of government. Remember, “of the people, by the people”. Let's not allow pessimism and isolationism and 140-character tweets confuse us. Let's be surgical about how and what we reform. Let's plan for the next fifty years.


Thursday, January 12, 2017

On Dogma: Belief without Proof

“Who are we? The answer to this question is not only one of the tasks, but the task of science.”
Erwin Schrodinger. Science and Humanism.

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won't find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
Richard Dawkins. River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.

"Guanine [the G in DNA's ACGT alphabet], for example, is named unpretentiously after guano, the bird droppings from which it was first isolated."
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. What do you know. We really are made of shit!

At the root of every evil of our times, it seems, stands the principle of dogma: Belief without proof. Some of these beliefs, these fictions, are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even realize they can or should be questioned. Paradoxically, the very stories that have made us who we are, the fables that have shaped our ethics as a species, are the same ones that are the hardest to abandon after they’ve served their purpose. Our only weapons in the battle against these fictions are science, logic, and skepticism.

“Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.”

In his brilliant book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, author Yuval Noah Harari argues that we need to step outside our daily frames of reference in order to understand our history as a species. We have to realize that most of what surrounds us today - religions, nations, political parties, corporations, money, stock markets - are all figments of our imagination. They have no equivalents in the physical world, the one inhabited by all the other species on the planet: trees, insects, predators. If you don't believe me, try to explain what value (what actual physical value) that twenty dollar bill in your pocket has. Try giving it to a monkey in exchange for a banana and see how far you get. Or try to explain to your Martian friend exactly what the United States of America is.

“Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.”

These fictions, these beliefs, help us bond together around a set of shared values. They serve a purpose by uniting us around a common theme - be that theme a nation, a religion, or a stock symbol. In return, they ask only that we believe in their falsehoods, that we don’t question their logic. As long as we all believe that the twenty dollar bill in your pocket is worth something, that it is worth the same amount as a book or a meal, all is well. As long as we believe that there is a line in the sand separating Tijuana from San Diego, all is well. Never mind that no such line is visible from space (or even on the ground).

“Homo sapiens evolved to think of people as divided into us and them. ‘Us’ was the group immediately around you, whoever you were, and ‘them’ was everyone else. In fact, no social animal is ever guided by the interests of the entire species to which it belongs. No chimpanzee cares about the interests of the chimpanzee species, no snail will lift a tentacle for the global snail community, no lion alpha male makes a bid for becoming the king of all lions, and at the entrance of no beehive can one find the slogan: ‘Worker bees of the world – unite!’”
     Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

It’s only when we start questioning these beliefs that we get into trouble. In some cases, these fictions continue to provide value and, as such, we collectively agree to uphold them. It makes sense to continue to believe in the United States or Germany or Japan as countries. It make sense to believe in GOOG and FB as corporate entities and to invest in them. It makes sense to believe that the twenty dollar bill in your pocket is worth something. In other cases, though, these fictions are causing more problems than they are solving. They made sense two thousand years ago when we needed an unruly illiterate populace to behave themselves but they stopped making sense long ago. In fact, they’re doing more harm than good. It’s high time for us to abandon some of these beliefs.

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
     Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

In this day and age, I think everyone would agree, we have pretty much handed our lives over to science. Over the past few hundred years, science has made our lives better in almost every way imaginable. I’m not talking just about computers and the virtual online universe we’ve created that dominates most of our days. I’m talking about everything that impacts our lives directly and indirectly. The wheels that power our bicycles are brought to us by science as are the engines that propel our vehicles and the wind turbines that bring us our electricity. If we want to find out the temperature on Mars, we turn to science. And that’s the same thing we do if we want to know the temperature in Timbuktu or in the next room. Our very health and well being is completely under the control of science: everything from vaccines to amazing surgical procedures to antibiotics to genetic engineering and more.

Science has made our lives better but, even more importantly, science has brought us the rules and principles of critical thinking through which we can interrogate and improve the world around us. The forces of dogma were in charge for thousands of years before the advent of modern science and failed to give us much to show for their time. For centuries, we were convinced that the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth. We were told that all matter was made of four “elements”: earth, wind, fire, and water. We thought the human body was comprised of four “humors”: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm!

We didn’t know what we didn’t know. And worse, we didn’t even try to find out the right answers. Anyone questioning dogma was a heretic and the authorities were justified in killing or imprisoning them. The Inquisition and the Salem witch hunts are just two better known examples.

It was only with the advent of science, of critical thinking and the principles of skepticism, that we started questioning these beliefs and looking for alternative explanations. It was only with the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century that humanity slowly awakened from its slumber and started sharing information broadly: Wait. What? You mean the earth is not flat? The sun doesn't go around the earth? What?!? Next thing you're going to tell me is that the universe wasn't created in seven days and is more than a few thousand years old. No, wait. I know, I know. You're going to claim we are related to the apes or that we share a quarter of our genes with a grain of rice.

Once you start questioning things, the whole story unravels pretty quickly.

Everything we do in life is governed by science… everything, except for one: the question of where we came from and whether a God created us. The most important question of all is simply answered with a shrug: "You gotta believe", "You gotta have faith." Even if there is not a single shred of evidence, even if every word goes against every logical tenet we know, we have to believe it’s true. Why? In what other discussion about any topic, in what situation in any other part of your life (or our universe, for that matter) would you accept such an answer? Why do we have to continue to believe in this fiction? What value does it serve?

If I told you your cancer was caused by fairies, you would laugh at me. If I told you the sun goes around the earth or that the earth is flat, you would have me committed to an asylum. How do we know these are ridiculous claims? Because science has shown us the right answers, because we took the time to understand the forces at play and to deduce the laws behind nature. Science is nothing but a language we have created for ourselves to explain the world around us. Physics and Biology and Chemistry and Mathematics are just languages we have created. Just like English and Hebrew and Spanish and Arabic.

So why is it that the only question we cannot answer with science, the only question we dare not approach with science, is God? As soon as the man's name comes up, we have to throw science and logic and reason out the window, we just have to "believe".

“Repeatedly, in many cultures, we invented reassuring fantasies about our parents - about how much they loved us, about how heroic and larger than life they were. As orphans do, we sometimes blamed ourselves for having been abandoned. It must have been our fault. We were too sinful, perhaps, or morally incorrigible. Insecure, we clung to these stories, imposing the strictest penalties on any who dared to doubt them. It was better than nothing, better than admitting our ignorance of our own origins, better than acknowledging that we had been left naked and helpless, a foundling on a doorstep.”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.

Science has not explained everything yet but it has explained a lot more than anything else we tried before it. More importantly, it's the only tool we have that has even attempted to explain the world around us. The God of the main Abrahamic religions stopped explaining himself two thousand years ago. And what he said back then doesn't make a whole lot of sense either. Yet, religious dogma - there's that word again - tells us that we just have to “believe” what the good book tells us. Even non-religious people say they like to believe there is a creator of the universe, a life force, a force for good. I hate to say it, but there is no such thing out there. Nothing in the universe is “good” or “bad”. Both of those are labels that we, as humans, add to the world. If they were logical scientific terms, there wouldn't be so many disparate beliefs around the world of what is “good” and what is “bad”. There is no good. There is no bad. There is only what was and what will be.

“Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.”
Sam Harris. Letter to a Christian Nation.

But, these are our traditions. This is how we were raised and how our parents were raised and their parents before them. This is how we learned to be moral human beings.

These fictions that we tell ourselves - God, religions, nations, laws, corporations, races, cultures - are just that: fiction. We should use them as long as they are helping us and making us better people. But we must also recognize that they are fictions. The problem shows up when we dogmatically believe that they are true: dogmatically, as in "without proof". Islam is not the problem. Neither is Christianity. Dogma is the problem. We must let go of these fictions once they've served their purpose. I would argue that God and religion, in this day and age, are doing more harm than good. It’s time to let go of them.

As for tradition... Just because your parents told you something doesn't mean it's true. Question their beliefs. If they can't defend them, perhaps it's because they never thought about it themselves either. They learned it from their parents, too. Go back just a few generations, I claim, and you will find nothing but ignorance and superstition.

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”
     Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.

Let's say God really does exist. He's just been busy dealing with a revolt over at Alpha Centauri for the past millennium or two. Let's say he shows up tomorrow and wants to know what we've been up to - as a species.

Which band would you rather be in? The one that says "Well, we spent our time praying five times a day facing in that direction and killed all these guys over here because they liked your third novel better than your second one."

Or the one that says: "Here's what we learned from the books you left us and here's how we improved upon them as we became smarter - while you were busy with our cousins over there."

“Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact.”
Christopher Hitchens. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.