Cupp, unsupported

I’m in the Washington Post’s book review blog today, offering my take on a chapter from conservative pundit S.E. Cupp’s forthcoming book. I haven’t seen anything but the 4th chapter (“Thou Shalt Evolve”), but the book as a whole seems like an odd project. Not least that a book titled Losing Our Religion: The Liberal Media?s Attack on Christianity would be penned by a self-described atheist. In other words, when the title calls it “our religion,” she isn’t including herself.

I first learned of Cupp’s existence in January, from a Salon.com profile which presented her as a possible bright light among the otherwise dim bulbs of conservative punditry. Kate Harding called Cupp:

one of the latest young, white conservative women to make a career of saying inflammatory things while looking really pretty. ? [M]y own investigation ? suggests she is indeed smarter and more interesting than your average conservative pundit. ?

For one thing, she can write, and she’s genuinely funny.? She seems to be a fan of my favorite novelist, Nick Hornby, and he’s publicly called her “charming.” ?

She’s smart. She’s funny. She’s charming. She’s honest enough at least to admit she doesn’t believe in a god and (in the second video below) to give George Bush, of whom she’s “a fan,” only a C grade on fiscal responsibility and cutting taxes. But then she gives him a B+ on limited government, which … what? What?

So I was intrigued to see her book. I assumed it’d be funny, smart, and charming. I expected it to be honest and open to the concerns of non-theists even as she bizarrely defends Christianity from them.

No.

Post editor Steven Levingston quotes Cupp:

The thrust of Cupp?s argument is summed up in her introduction in which she says the American media, ?with careful, covert nudges from the Obama administration,? are leading a revolution. ?This revolution, already in full throttle around the country,? she writes, ?is being waged against you and me and every other American, and its goal is simple: to overthrow God, and silence Christian America for good.”

Again, Cupp is an atheist. A war waged against “Christian America” is not waged against her (“me” in that last quotation), nor would it harm her or any atheist should this revolution successfully “overthrow God.” This contradiction runs throughout what I’ve seen of her book and indeed her other writings. In an interview with CSPAN where she explains her views, she says that she’s an atheist who wants to be a theist, and maunders about how awesome it would be to have religious faith. I have no words for the ways this makes no sense. It’s one thing to be an atheist who finds value in the social context of a church, and quite a few nontheists go to church for exactly that reason. But there’s no barrier keeping her from believing if she things belief is superior to nonbelief. Just do it! She lives in Manhattan. There are lots of churches to test drive there.

In the same video, she states that she’s pro-evolution, that she thinks the science is solid and she has no quarrels there.

You wouldn’t know it from reading her book, though.

She opens the chapter on evolution by citing polls in which Americans reject evolution. That a mere 40% accept evolution is, she insists “not exactly a ringing endorsement of Charles Darwin’s chef d’oeuvre, On the Origin of Species.” More precisely, it’s irrelevant to the scientific merits of evolution. First, because public opinion doesn’t make science true or false; second, because American public opinion doesn’t make science true or false. Lots of countries, including lots of religious countries, accept evolution by wide margins. But she just goes on, obsessing over how many Americans reject evolution, as if that mattered to what deserves to be in science classes. (At one points, she awkwardly insists that the 44% of people who reject evolution are “not a minority”) Regardless, America is divided over whether lasers work by focusing sound waves, and whether electrons are smaller than atoms. That doesn’t undermine the places of atomic theory and optical theory in the science curriculum. Cupp says that creationism is a “counter-argument,” but never says what it argues, nor does she evaluate the scientific argument being countered. It’s embarrassingly ham-fisted. Not even anti-intellectual, her approach is simply unintelligible.

My piece at the Post lays out my major objections, but there were a few things which didn’t make it into that review which may interest more obsessive observers of the creationism wars. For instance, she expends much angst over reporters’ decision not to call Disco. ‘Tute executive Stephen Meyer a “scientist.” But he isn’t. His doctorate is in history and philosophy of science, and while she notes that he was a professor when the article she criticizes came out, he was not a professor in any scientific field. He is not and was not a scientist. That reporters don’t call him one is not evidence of bias. The only problem would be if they did call him a scientist.

It’s hard to decide which section is strangest, but her treatment of the Kitzmiller trial may take the cake. She put more effort into it than any other, even interviewing two of the creationist school board members. She allows that the trial itself was fair, and seems untroubled by its result, but insists that media coverage displayed a liberal bias. She objects to reporting on creationist comments about America being a “Christian nation,” as if they were merely observations on the nation’s demographics. In fact, the speakers were rejecting the existence of what Cupp describes as “the rightly imposed division of church and state.” School board member Bill Buckingham endorsed the creationist policy by asserting, “This country was founded on Christianity and our students should be taught as such,” later adding, “Nowhere in the Constitution does it call for a separation of church and state.” He also explained his motivation by observing, “someone died on a cross 2,000 years ago, and it’s time someone stood up for him.” These would be some of the “rash religious statements that don’t hold up in court,” a reporter’s description which causes Cupp unexplained umbrage.

Cupp insists that Buckingham “was forced to move [from Dover, PA] due to the hostile reaction to his position, which was simply that evolution should be balanced with something else in school, like intelligent design or creationism.” As the quote above shows, that wasn’t quite his position. Buckingham spawned the crisis in Dover by blocking the necessary purchase of new textbooks unless a religious ? and therefore unconstitutional ? policy was adopted. His insistence on this unconstitutional path and his hostility to other board members drove them to resign in protest, and his lies under oath (in the words of the court) both prolonged the trial and increased its cost to the township. If that weren’t enough to chill his relationship with his neighbors, he publicly explained that his move was driven in part by his struggles with drug addiction.

Cupp also talks with Heather Geesey, who insists “I still don’t think people understand everything that really happened.” Geesey, you’ll recall, was the witness who had this charming interaction with the judge over her ever-shifting story:

THE COURT: I have a question before you step down, Mrs. Geesey, because I’m confused.

THE WITNESS: So am I.

THE COURT: Well, it’s more important that I’m not confused than you’re not confused.

These were two of the least credible witnesses in the Dover trial, two witnesses who were referred to the US Attorney for perjury charges because of their testimony. And remember, Cupp doesn’t actually think they are right, either in their religious views, in their quest to push religion using government policy, nor in their rejection of evolution! Yet she cannot manage even to mention that one of them appears constitutionally clueless (identifying her profession, during testimony in federal court, as “full-time mommy“) and the other blamed his memory lapses on Oxycontin addiction. Could Cupp have feared bringing that up might get her on Rush Limbaugh’s bad side?

Cupp dismisses discussion of evolution’s scientific merits in the press because “suggesting evolution is complicated, but has the unwavering imprimatur of the scientific community, is another way of saying faith and science are incompatible and believers are on the losing side of the argument.” Again, try to remember that Cupp herself thinks evolution is just fine, and that elsewhere she criticizes the media for failing to acknowledge pro-evolution theists like Francis Collins. So there’s simply no way she actually believes that sentence. She knows that evolution is good science. And she knows that saying so need not require a rejection of Christianity. If the quibbles Cupp hammers throughout the book count as “anti-Christian,” what are we to make of whoppers like this, which ignores the 12,000 signers of the Clergy Letter Project and the support for evolution from ecclesiastical bodies of Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Unitarian, and Congregationalist denominations? Would it be fair to hoist her by her own petard and call this misrepresentation anti-Christian? Yes, but barely.

In any event, Cupp is ultimately smart enough to see that her unprincipled support for letting any and all views into classrooms (without any evaluation of the merits of those views) could just as easily be used to bring in Holocaust denial or other nonsense. So to explain why she thinks nonsense like creationism belongs in science classes but nonsense like Holocaust denial does not, she explains creationism is “not a conspiracy theory,” and “half the American population believes it.” The latter is, again, irrelevant. The first is also irrelevant, but it isn’t even true. Cupp’s own defense of creationism consists of 20 pages seeking (unsuccessfully) to document a conspiracy by left-leaning journalists bent on suppressing religion. The notion that their ideas are being suppressed by a secretive cabal of scientists, atheists, and liberal journalists is a staple of creationist writings, just as secret cabals of Jews are a staple of what Cupp acknowledges to be “conspiracy theories.” It is only because of this conspiracy ? creationists insist ? that evidence for a global flood, a 6,000 year old earth, the recent origin of all life, the explanation for radioisotope datings, etc., is not widely known and accepted. How does this shadowy conspiracy work? By firing people from jobs they never lost or never had, by demanding actual data to support comforting notions, by refusing to allow “then a miracle happened” as a scientific explanation, etc. If a theory rooted in conspiracy can’t be called “conspiracy theory,” what can?

The argument she makes which most nearly grapples with reality is that American rejection of evolution occurs despite “evolution ha[ving] been taught exclusively in biology classes for thirty years.” It’s a serious issue and one worth discussing. As someone who herself thinks evolution is good science, she should find it troubling. But there are, of course problems in her assumption that, over the last 30 years at least, Americans have carefully considered the evidence and rejected it on its merits. Regardless of the court rulings (which she cites) against laws requiring “equal time” for creationism and evolution, there is no guarantee that teachers will cover evolution, and many teachers are unaware of the unconstitutionality of teaching creationism or simply choose to ignore the nation’s highest law. Some polls are worth citing: a survey in 2008 found that one high school science teacher in eight spends at least an hour presenting creationism as good science. Even when evolution is covered, teachers spend too little time on it. A third of teachers spend less than 5 hours on evolution, and fewer than half spend more than 10 hours on it. This is far too little time to cover a concept without which, to quote the great evolutionary biology (and devout Christian) Theodosius Dobzhansky, “nothing in biology makes sense.” A 2005 study by the National Science Teachers Association found that 30% of teachers face pressure to teach creationism, and an equal number report pressure simply to skip lessons on evolution. In that context, and given the massive PR campaign by creationists which undermines these teachers’ efforts, it is simply absurd to claim that students are receiving the sort of thorough presentation of evolution which would allow them to make an informed assessment of the field. But I bet that lots of prospective calculus students wish this standard for removing something from the curriculum were more widely accepted.

The real question, though, is why Cupp even bothered writing the chapter. She supports evolution and is not religious. She has no reason to weigh in on the theological dispute between Christian denominations about whether Christianity opposes evolution, nor does her majoritarian stance require her to follow this course. Public polling shows that most non-fundamentalist Christians support evolution, and there’s no need for her to side with the fundamentalists. Nor is it necessary for her advancement as a conservative pundit. David Brooks, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and John Derbyshire are a few of the prominent conservatives who have backed evolution and called out creationism. However small that group, it’s not bad company. And positioning herself there would have the advantages of allowing her to be more honest about her views, and leaving fewer competitors in her rise through the ranks of conservative punditry.

She could’ve done a real service there, too. There are plenty of atheist conservatives out there, and plenty of theist conservatives who could do with a bit of education about the value of separation of church and state, not to mention education about how to be sensitive to community members who don’t believe in any god (or who just have a different god they prefer). Her’s is a smart young conservative voice, and it’s a voice that comes from the sort of body people tend to pay attention to. Which means she could help people like herself, normalize atheism in the broader culture and shift conservatism in a healthier direction.

Instead, she gives every evidence of selling out her own beliefs, and all the conservative atheists who might’ve hoped someone out there would speak for them.

Comments

  1. #1 benjdm
    April 21, 2010

    It’s one thing to be an atheist who finds value in the social context of a church, and quite a few nontheists go to church for exactly that reason. But there’s no barrier keeping her from believing if she things belief is superior to nonbelief. Just do it!

    Huh? If I ask you to believe something that you don’t currently believe, you can do it?

    If yes, that’s amazing. I can only pretend, not actually believe in something by conscious effort.

    If no, why should she be able to do it? Even if she is the one asking herself to do it?

  2. #2 llewelly
    April 21, 2010

    Thank you for expanding on this.

  3. #3 Antti
    April 22, 2010

    I know this isn’t contributing much to the discussion, but still. As a Finn (and we do have a state religion: evangelic-lutheran protestant christian, though to most religious Americans it’s an unfathomably liberal institution – they even started to allow female clergy a few years ago, and I’ve come to believe that the general majority of priests would have no real objection to consecrating the unions of gay couples), I can’t help but be a bit flummoxed by this struggle. It’s fascinating to follow, nonetheless. :)

    Sure, we have religious education at school, about 1h/week all the way through, with more stuff about other religions coming along in and after junior high (years 7-9), but it doesn’t get in the way of the science. It’s also highly ‘factual’ in nature, more to do with the historical abd cultural aspect of things instead of being plain old Bible study. That’s for people to do at Sunday school or home or wherever, in any case, that’s personal and won’t be done much in the average elementary school.

    At high school (years 10-12, or age 15-18), one of the two mandatory biology courses (something like 20 hours of classes – it was long enough ago that I forget the exact numbers), one is (or was at least) about heredity, reproduction and genetics, with something like 5-8 hours spent on Mendelian heredity alone. And IIRC Mendel’s experiments were already mentioned a few years before that, but I’m not sure at what point.

  4. #4 paulmurray
    April 22, 2010

    “The real question, though, is why Cupp even bothered writing the chapter. She supports evolution and is not religious.”

    Come on … you don’t *really* think she isn’t lying, surely!

  5. #5 J. J. Ramsey
    April 22, 2010

    paulmurray: “Come on … you don’t *really* think she isn’t lying, surely!”

    Of course, it’s possible that she’s lying about being an atheist, but it’s an awfully odd lie to make, since it makes her less trustworthy in the eyes of her intended audience.

  6. #6 Mike from Ottawa
    April 22, 2010

    A JJ Ramsey:

    Her intended audience judges trustworthiness on the basis of whether what the person is saying is something they already agree with. An ‘atheist’ endorsing the ‘liberal media’ is out to destroy Christianity will just add credibility because her readers will be able to say ‘See, it’s not just us Christians saying there’s a war on religion!’

  7. #7 Joshua Zelinsky
    April 22, 2010

    It sounds like Cupp is the extreme version of the atheist who thinks religion is ok: she’s an atheist but desperately wants to believe. I’m really not sure what to say to that. Alternatively, she may just be very muddled.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that it is useful to attack Heather Geesey for identifying as a stay-at-home mom. That’s a perfectly valid thing for someone to do. The problem isn’t that she was a full-time mother. The problem is solely that she’s an idiot who lied under oath.

  8. #8 duckphup
    April 23, 2010

    “So to explain why she thinks nonsense like creationism belongs in science classes but nonsense like Holocaust denial does not, she explains creationism is ‘not a conspiracy theory’, and ‘half the American population believes it’.”

    ****

    That’s not an endorsement of ‘creationism’… that’s an endorsement of the fact that half the American population is stupid, gullible and scientifically-ignorant. Actually, it’s more like 85%+ of Americans are stupid, gullible and scientifically-ignorant. Heck… around 20% of adult Americans think that the sun orbits Earth. Robert Heinlein had a handle on this…

    >>> “We define thinking as integrating data and arriving at correct answers. Look around you. Most people do that stunt just well enough to get to the corner store and back without breaking a leg. If the average man thinks at all, he does silly things like generalizing from a single datum. He uses one-valued logic. If he is exceptionally bright, he may use two-valued, ‘either-or’ logic to arrive at his wrong answers. If he is hungry, hurt, or personally interested in the answer, he can’t use ANY sort of logic, and will discard an observed fact as blithely as he will stake his life on a piece of wishful thinking. He uses the technical miracles created by superior men without wonder or surprise, as a kitten accepts a bowl of milk. Far from ASPIRING to higher reasoning, he is NOT EVEN AWARE that higher reasoning EXISTS… yet he classes his own mental process as being of the same sort as the genius of an Einstein. Man is not a rational animal; he is a rationalizing animal.

    For explanations of a universe that confuses him, he seizes onto numerology, astrology, hysterical religions, and other fancy ways to go crazy. Having accepted such glorified nonsense, facts make no impression on him, even if at the cost of his own life. Joe, one of the hardest things to believe is the abysmal depth of human stupidity.” ~ Robert A. Heinlein – Kettle Belly Baldwin in Gulf from Assignment in Eternity <<<

  9. #9 KKairos
    April 23, 2010

    To Rosenau in (some) support of benjdm @ 1:

    I underwent a crisis of faith last year during which I felt at numerous times that not only had I lost my belief, but that it would be wrong to take it back. I believe it’s possible to take the Wager and to choose belief even if one’s (ir)rational faculties seem to be against it. Cupp is not me, and might bet differently. I was never quite in her place, but I was awfully close. Re: Rosenau’s comment about numbers of churches in her area: She might not be okay with praying to something if she’s not yet convinced it exists. People can want desperately to believe, but feel unable to make the leap of faith. I felt trapped like that.

    The above paragraph was not (intended) evangelism. It was a religious person verifying this:

    Even for those who really desire belief, doubt sometimes feels overwhelming. Ignore that fact at your intellectual peril.

    Anyway, I’ve got six impossible things to pray to before breakfast, so I’ll be off.

  10. #10 Marion Delgado
    April 23, 2010

    I doubt she’s at all honest, but pretending she is for a second, someone should tell Cupp how many of the religious are there for family reasons, and how many (probably even more) are essentially just bet-hedging and covering their bases.

    I don’t think you can really believe 2+2=5 or 10 impossible things before breakfast by simply willing to, but she could certainly do what the “believers” above do. It’s what Xander in BTVS did:

    “Now I’m not sure what I am so bear with me here. (in background we see one vamp grabbing Buffy, who shrieks) Now I lay me down to sleep, uh, shabat Israel, uh, om, om. ”

  11. #11 Josh Rosenau
    April 23, 2010

    KKairos: I appreciate your insights, and thought about crises of faith like those described in many saints’ biographies as I wrote that passage. I suspect, indeed, that many religious people have had similar crises of faith. That didn’t make them atheists. Atheists believe there is no god. She sounds like, at best, an agnostic theist – someone who believes in god but does not know there is a god. A fine distinction, but meaningful.

  12. #12 Marion Delgado
    April 26, 2010

    Speaking as a life-long Christian Republican, the true author of Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America, and someone who was once described by the late Rev. Billy Graham as “much closer to God than I’ll ever be – a shining light of faith in a dark time,” I just want to point out that any Concern Troll can claim to be anything they want. This is what the handy French phrase soi-disant means.

  13. #13 Marion Delgado
    April 26, 2010

    Josh:

    My understanding is that it was Alan Bonsell and Bill Buckingham who were referred for perjury charges, and if so, you shouldn’t leave the implication that Heather Geesey was, if she wasn’t. By my reading, Cupp only interviewed one of those who probably perjured themselves.

  14. #14 Marion Delgado
    April 26, 2010

    Melissa, just a note:

    The judge referred the board’s testimony to the US attorney for examination for perjury charges, using that word. And that is all Josh is saying, and that is all I am saying.

    I happen to believe it was Bonsell’s and Buckingham’s testimony that was prompting the judge’s actions – Heather Geesey being too vague to get well caught. However, given that the judge didn’t really specify, Josh’s point is clearer than mine in this case.

  15. #15 Josh Rosenau
    April 27, 2010

    Marion: Geesey changed her story on the stand, obscuring what language was used at a crucial school board meeting. Bonsell and Buckingham were the most egregiously dishonest in their statements, but Geesey has been mentioned as a possible perjurer as well.

    Melissa: There are factors other than those you mention which control whether charges are filed. The US Attorney has limited time and resources, and may have decided that since false statements under oath in this case were exposed during the trial, those who sought to deceive the court lost their case, and they lost their seats on the board, it was not an efficient use of resources to pursue further punishment. The absence of prosecution does not mean the absence of a crime (or else Jack the Ripper’s victims were not murdered).

  16. #16 Cappy
    April 28, 2010

    I think when she says “Our religion” she means religion as a tool for conservatives to use in controlling their base of voters. I believe there are plenty of conservative “atheists” or “agnostics” (please, excuse excessive quoting) who go through the motions of religiosity to garner support of the religious. If they should lose the power of religion to herd their sheep they will lose voters. Therefore, Cupp mourns the loss of religious arguments in schools and such that might come with more “attacks” on religion by the so called liberal media.

  17. #17 Marion Delgado
    April 30, 2010

    I was not going to go here, but this is also a fact:

    George W. Bush fired all the US attorneys. This is hardly unprecedented. Clinton had all the US attorneys submit their resignations, which is basically customary, and retained very few of them. What Bush did after that, however, is historically ALMOST unprecedented, since it recapitulated Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre to a degree:

    Having replaced ALL the US Attorneys with GOP stalwarts, he and his eminence grise Karl Rove instructed them to trump up fake vote fraud prosecutions. We only know about the (again, hand-picked, Republican) US Attorneys who refused to go along with this illegal and un-Constitutional maneuver by the Bush administration because they were invariably FIRED. This is reminiscent of all the prosecutors fired by Nixon, or who resigned – they were all appointed Republicans.

    This leaves the question of what the US Attorneys whom Bush did NOT fire are like, on average. It doesn’t let you conclude anything about a given US Attorney, but it does raise questions about them as a group – questions the basically criminal activity by Karl Rove and George W. Bush raised.

    Do bear in mind that much of this criminal activity was in support of an attack on the right of US military personnel who were also racial and ethnic majorities to vote. They were being disenfranchised because of being sent overseas (and in many cases, stop-lossed to a degree historically unprecedented, by G. W. Bush).

    Unfortunately, the new president Obama did not have the US Attorneys submit their resignations – even though there was tremendous precedent and even though good governance would have required he do so. In fact, that neglect has retained the shadow over the trustability of US Attornies. It’s a disservice to them and to the Republic.

    Obviously, jumping to the conclusion that GOP, or Bush-appointed, legal authorities are going to act or rule in a biased and partial manner is not a sound methodology for evaluating a case. It’s precisely the misjudgement people at Uncommon Descent and the Discovery Institute made about Judge Jones, who was a GW Bush-appointed judge.

    Nonetheless, that unprecedented tainting of the US Attorneys pool means, if nothing else, that Melissa’s claim:

    If the US Attorney thought he could make the case (i.e., that all of the elements of perjury could be established beyond a reasonable doubt) he would have.

    He didn’t.

    So, unless someone was found guilty of perjury, THERE WAS NO PERJURY.

    is prima facie not very convincing.