Death by Faith: The Venomous Consequences of Religious Irrationality

Jamie Coots, the Kentucky pastor of a snake-handling congregation featured on the National Geographic reality show Snake Salvation, died recently from a rattlesnake bite. After Coots was bitten by the snake during a church service, he and his family forbade medical personnel to administer antivenom.

Coots and his small sect of believers interpret passages such as Mark 16:17–18 literally, holding that God commands them to handle serpents and promises to keep them safe while doing so.

That Coots died of a snake bite is no surprise. The surprise is that some people who recognize the irrationality of Coots’s beliefs nevertheless praise him for acting on those beliefs. David Lyle, CEO of National Geographic Channels, paid tribute to Coots in a television special:

Pastor Coots was a lovely, kind man who was good to our crew during the shooting. And while it may be hard for some to understand the choices he made due to his deeply held convictions, one cannot help but admire his dedication and bravery.

The local police chief rationalized:

I don’t agree with his interpretation, but you just have to have a tremendous amount of respect for his determination to follow his beliefs. I mean that’s what he believed, and he would not step away from it.

Such praise of Coots is absurd. “Deeply held” irrational beliefs are still irrational, whether those beliefs call for handling dangerous snakes or burning “witches” or flying airplanes into buildings.

Integrity does not consist in loyalty to irrational beliefs; it consists in loyalty to rational principles—principles based in observation, logic, and the requirements of human life.

Irrational beliefs sever one’s mind from reality, and loyalty to such beliefs undermines or destroys one’s life. Coots’s death provides yet another example of the consequences of accepting ideas on faith. His “determination” to act irrationally deserves not respect but rebuke.


Obama Administration Continues to Thwart the Keystone XL Project

The Obama administration is “putting off its decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, likely until after the November elections,” the Associated Press reports, illustrating how leftist political maneuvering continues to delay this vital project.

In 2008, TransCanada Corporation first applied for the U.S. government’s permission to build the pipeline across the border from Canada into the United States. In 2012, the Obama administration refused to grant the permit on the pretext that “the rushed and arbitrary deadline insisted on by Congressional Republicans prevented a full assessment of the pipeline’s impact, especially the health and safety of the American people.”

The federal government should stop impeding development of the pipeline. The developers have a moral right to use their minds, to develop technologies, and to offer their products in the marketplace, so long as they do not violate rights.

Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, justifiably complained that, because of the Obama administration’s roadblocks,

It’s taken longer to approve the Keystone XL pipeline than it did to win World War II, longer than it took us to put a man in space, and almost as long as it took to build the Transcontinental railroad 155 years ago.

The pipeline would enable the highly efficient transport of life-serving energy and raw materials. The U.S. government should get out of the way and enable the lifeblood of civilization to flow.


Zach Braff Is No Liberal

Zach Braff, the actor most famous for his work on the long-running medical comedy Scrubs, recently Tweeted about liberalism. He joined a hashtag campaign to “say something liberal” in just four words. He Tweeted, “Not afraid of homosexuals” and “Willing to share wealth.” On the second point, he clarified his message was “about not minding paying higher taxes.” (Braff later removed his Tweets, but not before conservatives reproduced them on Twitchy.)

Braff’s remarks indicate he does not understand the true nature of liberalism. As I wrote in 2012, the concept “logically refers to an advocate of liberty” and “belongs to those of us who advocate individual rights and a government limited to that purpose.” Sometimes liberalism by this conception is called classical liberalism.

What passes as “liberalism” in modern America, by contrast, is an assault on liberty: It pertains predominantly to support for a vastly powerful and rights-violating government. (Modern “liberals” do sometimes support truly liberal policies, as by advocating the rights of women to seek abortions and the rights of gay couples to marry.)

Braff’s remark about homosexuals, although not a political view, expresses a sentiment shared by many people, whether classical liberal, modern “liberal,” libertarian, or even conservative. Being afraid of someone just because he’s gay makes no more sense than being afraid of someone just because he’s heterosexual or left-handed. Being “afraid” of homosexuals doesn’t make one non-liberal; it just makes one an idiot.

Braff’s remark about a willingness to share wealth is not a political view, either. People of many different political persuasions are willing to share their wealth in certain contexts.

In terms of politics, the fundamental issue is not whether and in what ways individuals are willing to voluntarily share their wealth. The fundamental issue is whether individuals have a moral right to decide how to use their wealth. Real (classical) liberals hold that individuals have such a right; modern (leftist) “liberals” hold that individuals have no such right.

The context of Braff’s remarks suggest that he is willing to share not only his own wealth, but also other people’s wealth without their consent. Those who seize other people’s wealth by force—or advocate policies involving wealth confiscation—have no rightful claim on the word liberal. They should call themselves what they are: rights-rejecting statists.


TOS’s New Website

craig-biddle-hawaiianI’m delighted to announce the launch of TOS’s new website. Our staff and developers have worked hard toward making the site easy to navigate and a pleasure to use. I hope you find it so.

A number of tasks and improvements remain to be done, and we will be working on these over the next few weeks. (Notably, we need to improve the load time on certain pages and the responsiveness on mobile devices.) Given the size and scope of this project, I have no doubt that various glitches will surface in the days ahead as well, so please be patient as we iron out the wrinkles.

If you detect errors or have trouble finding something or encounter any other problems on the site, please let us know via our Contact page. We welcome all feedback—whether complimentary or critical.

I hope you enjoy the new website and the Spring issue of the journal!

Craig Biddle

Liberty, Free Markets, and Moral Character—An Important Conference for College Students

biddle-clemsonMay 22–25, I’ll be speaking at “Liberty, Free Markets, and Moral Character” along with Andrew Bernstein, Brad Thompson, and several libertarian speakers. The conference is for students between 18 and 24 years old; the deadline for applications is March 8.

I’ve spoken at similar conferences hosted by The Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism over the past few years, and I’ve enjoyed them immensely. The students tend to be extremely bright and active minded, and many of them have told me (and other faculty) that they learned more of substance during these few days than they learned during their years of college. This year’s conference, however, promises to be especially interesting and enlightening.

This year, The Clemson Institute has teamed up with the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE); so the conference faculty now include Objectivists and libertarians, each presenting their views about what a free society is and what such a society depends on. I’m delighted to see libertarian and Objectivist intellectuals presenting their respective ideas to students at the same conference. Given the growth of the pro-liberty movement and the many active-minded, high-energy youth involved in it—and given the unique power of Objectivism to undergird liberty with observation-based moral and philosophic support—I regard this conference as a great opportunity to educate liberty-minded youth about the importance of such a foundation.

The philosophic orientation of the conference can be seen in the marketing of the event, which opens with this:

“There is only one power that determines the course of history, just as it determines the course of every individual life: the power of man’s rational faculty—the power of ideas. If you know a man’s convictions, you can predict his actions. If you understand the dominant philosophy of a society, you can predict its course. But convictions and philosophy are matters open to man’s choice.” —Ayn Rand What is the connection between liberty, free markets, and moral character? Economic thinking provides powerful insights about the world by explaining that people make choices and are driven by incentives. However, it does not tell you why people must make choices or, more importantly, what choices to make. This seminar turns economic thinking on its head by looking at its foundations through a philosophic lens. What are the moral and philosophic underpinnings of economic thinking? Why do we have to make choices and how does moral character determine the choices people make?

The lecture descriptions follow suit. Here is the speaking schedule:

  • “Value: Subjective or Objective?” by Dr. Aeon Skoble
  • “The Source and Nature of Rights” by Craig Biddle
  • “A Christian Perspective of Natural Rights” by Dr. Anne Bradley
  • “Contrasting Other Ethical Bases for Liberty” by Dr. Aeon Skoble
  • “How Society Orders Itself” by Dr. Tom Bell
  • “The Trader Principle” by Dr. Andrew Bernstein)
  • “Is Money the Root of All Evil?” by Dr. Andrew Bernstein
  • “The Origins and Nature of Law” by Dr. Tom Bell
  • “Power Corrupts: How Good Intentions Pave The Road to Serfdom” by Max Borders
  • “Self Interest Rightly Understood” by Dr. Anne Bradley Thompson
  • “Entrepreneurship: Creating Value in a World of Uncertainty and Big Government” by Max Borders
  • “The Path to Flourishing” by Dr. Anne Bradley
  • “The Arena” Debate: “Is moral diversity an asset or liability for the liberty movement?” —Craig Biddle and Max Borders (Relevant Readings: “Rights Schmights” by Max Borders, and “Libertarianism vs. Radical Capitalism” by Craig Biddle)
  • “Rights-Protecting Government and Objective Law” by Craig Biddle

This is a perfect opportunity for students to examine these crucial issues by hearing arguments from Objectivists and libertarians; by asking questions to clarify the speakers’ claims and meaning; and by thinking, debating, and striving to figure out which (if any) of the ideas make sense.

If you are between 18 and 24 years old, don’t miss this opportunity: Apply today. And share this information with any friends who might be interested.

I hope to see you there!