Saturday, March 31

Ex-Aide Details a Loss of Faith in the President

Ex-Aide Details a Loss of Faith in the President

AUSTIN, Tex., March 29 — In 1999, Matthew Dowd became a symbol of George W. Bush’s early success at positioning himself as a Republican with Democratic appeal.

A top strategist for the Texas Democrats who was disappointed by the Bill Clinton years, Mr. Dowd was impressed by the pledge of Mr. Bush, then governor of Texas, to bring a spirit of cooperation to Washington. He switched parties, joined Mr. Bush’s political brain trust and dedicated the next six years to getting him to the Oval Office and keeping him there. In 2004, he was appointed the president’s chief campaign strategist.

Looking back, Mr. Dowd now says his faith in Mr. Bush was misplaced.

In a wide-ranging interview here, Mr. Dowd called for a withdrawal from Iraq and expressed his disappointment in Mr. Bush’s leadership.

He criticized the president as failing to call the nation to a shared sense of sacrifice at a time of war, failing to reach across the political divide to build consensus and ignoring the will of the people on Iraq. He said he believed the president had not moved aggressively enough to hold anyone accountable for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and that Mr. Bush still approached governing with a “my way or the highway” mentality reinforced by a shrinking circle of trusted aides.

“I really like him, which is probably why I’m so disappointed in things,” he said. He added, “I think he’s become more, in my view, secluded and bubbled in.”

In speaking out, Mr. Dowd became the first member of Mr. Bush’s inner circle to break so publicly with him.

He said his decision to step forward had not come easily. But, he said, his disappointment in Mr. Bush’s presidency is so great that he feels a sense of duty to go public given his role in helping Mr. Bush gain and keep power.

Mr. Dowd, a crucial part of a team that cast Senator John Kerry as a flip-flopper who could not be trusted with national security during wartime, said he had even written but never submitted an op-ed article titled “Kerry Was Right,” arguing that Mr. Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat and 2004 presidential candidate, was correct in calling last year for a withdrawal from Iraq.

“I’m a big believer that in part what we’re called to do — to me, by God; other people call it karma — is to restore balance when things didn’t turn out the way they should have,” Mr. Dowd said. “Just being quiet is not an option when I was so publicly advocating an election.”

Mr. Dowd’s journey from true believer to critic in some ways tracks the public arc of Mr. Bush’s political fortunes. But it is also an intensely personal story of a political operative who at times, by his account, suppressed his doubts about his professional role but then confronted them as he dealt with loss and sorrow in his own life.

In the last several years, as he has gradually broken his ties with the Bush camp, one of Mr. Dowd’s premature twin daughters died, he was divorced, and he watched his oldest son prepare for deployment to Iraq as an Army intelligence specialist fluent in Arabic. Mr. Dowd said he had become so disillusioned with the war that he had considered joining street demonstrations against it, but that his continued personal affection for the president had kept him from joining protests whose anti-Bush fervor is so central.

Mr. Dowd, 45, said he hoped in part that by coming forward he would be able to get a message through to a presidential inner sanctum that he views as increasingly isolated. But, he said, he holds out no great hope. He acknowledges that he has not had a conversation with the president.

Dan Bartlett, the White House counselor, said Mr. Dowd’s criticism is reflective of the national debate over the war.

“It’s an issue that divides people,” Mr. Bartlett said. “Even people that supported the president aren’t immune from having their own feelings and emotions.”

He said he disagreed with Mr. Dowd’s description of the president as isolated and with his position on withdrawal. But he said he was not surprised. Mr. Dowd has relayed the same sentiments to Mr. Bartlett in private conversations; they are friends.

During the interview with Mr. Dowd on a slightly overcast afternoon in downtown Austin, he was a far quieter man than the cigar chomping general that he was during Mr. Bush’s 2004 campaign.

Soft spoken and somewhat melancholy, he wore jeans, a T-shirt and sandals in an office devoid of Bush memorabilia save for a campaign coffee mug and a photograph of the first couple with his oldest son, Daniel. The photograph was taken one week before the 2004 election, and one day before Daniel was to go to boot camp.

Over Mexican food at a restaurant that was only feet from the 2000 campaign headquarters, and later at his office just up the street, Mr. Dowd recounted his political and personal journey. “It’s amazing,” he said. “In five years, I’ve only traveled 300 feet, but it feels like I’ve gone around the world, where my head is.”

Mr. Dowd said he decided to become a Republican in 1999 and joined Mr. Bush after watching him work closely with Bob Bullock, the Democratic lieutenant governor of Texas, who was a political client of Mr. Dowd and a mentor to Mr. Bush.

“It’s almost like you fall in love,” he said. “I was frustrated about Washington, the inability for people to get stuff done and bridge divides. And this guy’s personality — he cared about education and taking a different stand on immigration.”

Mr. Dowd established himself as an expert at interpreting polls, giving Karl Rove, the president’s closest political adviser, and the rest of the Bush team guidance as they set out to woo voters, slash opponents and exploit divisions between Democratic-leaning states and Republican-leaning ones.

In television interviews in 2004, Mr. Dowd said that Mr. Kerry’s campaign was proposing “a weak defense,” and that the voters “trust this president more than they trust Senator Kerry on Iraq.”

But he was starting to have his own doubts by then, he said.

He said he thought Mr. Bush handled the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks well but “missed a real opportunity to call the country to a shared sense of sacrifice.”

He was dumbfounded when Mr. Bush did not fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld after revelations that American soldiers had tortured prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Several associates said Mr. Dowd chafed under Mr. Rove’s leadership. Mr. Dowd said he had not spoken to Mr. Rove in months but would not discuss their relationship in detail.

Mr. Dowd said, in retrospect, he was in denial.

“When you fall in love like that,” he said, “and then you notice some things that don’t exactly go the way you thought, what do you do? Like in a relationship, you say ‘No no, no, it’ll be different.’ ”

He said he clung to the hope that Mr. Bush would get back to his Texas style of governing if he won. But he saw no change after the 2004 victory.

He describes the administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, and the president’s refusal in the summer of 2005 to meet with the war protester Cindy Sheehan, whose son died fighting in Iraq, around the same time that Mr. Bush entertained the bicyclist Lance Armstrong at his Crawford ranch as further cause for doubt.

“I had finally come to the conclusion that maybe all these things along do add up,” he said. “That it’s not the same, it’s not the person I thought.”

He said that during his work on the 2006 re-election campaign of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, which had a bipartisan appeal, he began to rethink his approach to elections.

“I think we should design campaigns that appeal not to 51 percent of the people,” he said, “but bring the country together as a whole.”

He said that he still believed campaigns must do what it takes to win, but that he was never comfortable with the most hard-charging tactics. He is now calling for “gentleness” in politics. He said that while he tried to keep his own conduct respectful during political combat, he wanted to “do my part in fixing fissures that I may have been part of.”

His views against the war began to harden last spring when, in a personal exercise, he wrote a draft opinion article and found himself agreeing with Mr. Kerry’s call for withdrawal from Iraq. He acknowledged that the expected deployment of his son Daniel was an important factor.

He said the president’s announcement last fall that he was re-nominating the former United Nations ambassador John R. Bolton, whose confirmation Democrats had already refused, was further proof to him that Mr. Bush was not seeking consensus with Democrats.

He said he came to believe Mr. Bush’s views were hardening, with the reinforcement of his inner circle. But, he said, the person “who is ultimately responsible is the president.” And he gradually ventured out with criticism, going so far as declaring last month in a short essay in Texas Monthly magazine that Mr. Bush was losing “his gut-level bond with the American people,” and breaking more fully in this week’s interview.

“If the American public says they’re done with something, our leaders have to understand what they want,” Mr. Dowd said. “They’re saying ‘Get out of Iraq.’ ”

Mr. Dowd’s friends from Mr. Bush’s orbit said they understood his need to speak out. “Everyone is going to reflect on the good and the bad, and everything in between, in their own way,” said Nicolle Wallace, communications director of Mr. Bush’s 2004 campaign, a post she also held at the White House until last summer. “And I certainly respect the way he’s doing it — these are his true thoughts from a deeply personal place.” Ms. Wallace said she continued to have “enormous gratitude” for her years with Mr. Bush.

Mr. Bartlett, the White House counselor, said he understood, too, though he said he strongly disagreed with Mr. Dowd’s assessment. “Do we know our critics will try to use this to their advantage? Yes,” he said. “Is that perfect? No. But you can respectfully disagree with someone who has been supportive of you.”

Mr. Dowd does not seem prepared to put his views to work in 2008. The only candidate who appeals to him, he said, is Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, because of what Mr. Dowd called his message of unity. But, he said, “I wouldn’t be surprised if I wasn’t walking around in Africa or South America doing something that was like mission work.”

He added, “I do feel a calling of trying to re-establish a level of gentleness in the world.”

Reverse Foreign Aid

Idea Lab: Reverse Foreign Aid

The New York Times, March 25, 2007

For the last 10 years, people in China have been sending me money. I also get money from countries in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa — really, from every poor country. I’m not the only one who’s so lucky. Everyone in a wealthy nation has become the beneficiary of the generous subsidies that poorer countries bestow upon rich ones. Here in the United States, this welfare program in reverse allows our government to spend wildly without runaway inflation, keeps many American businesses afloat and even provides medical care in parts of the country where doctors are scarce.

Economic theory holds that money should flow downhill. The North, as rich countries are informally known, should want to sink its capital into the South — the developing world, which some statisticians define as all countries but the 29 wealthiest. According to this model, money both does well and does good: investors get a higher return than they could get in their own mature economies, and poor countries get the capital they need to get richer. Increasing the transfer of capital from rich nations to poorer ones is often listed as one justification for economic globalization.

Historically, the global balance sheet has favored poor countries. But with the advent of globalized markets, capital began to move in the other direction, and the South now exports capital to the North, at a skyrocketing rate. According to the United Nations, in 2006 the net transfer of capital from poorer countries to rich ones was $784 billion, up from $229 billion in 2002. (In 1997, the balance was even.) Even the poorest countries, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, are now money exporters.

How did this great reversal take place? Why did globalization begin to redistribute wealth upward? The answer, in large part, has to do with global finance. All countries hold hard-currency reserves to cover their foreign debts or to use in case of a natural or a financial disaster. For the past 50 years, rich countries have steadily held reserves equivalent to about three months’ worth of their total imports. As money circulates more and more quickly in a globalized economy, however, many countries have felt the need to add to their reserves, mainly to head off investor panic, which can strike even well-managed economies. Since 1990, the world’s nonrich nations have increased their reserves, on average, from around three months’ worth of imports to more than eight months’ worth — or the equivalent of about 30 percent of their G.D.P. China and other countries maintain those reserves mainly in the form of supersecure U.S. Treasury bills; whenever they buy T-bills, they are in effect lending the United States money. This allows the U.S. to keep interest rates low and Washington to run up huge deficits with no apparent penalty.

But the cost to poorer countries is very high. The benefit of T-bills, of course, is that they are virtually risk-free and thus help assure investors and achieve stability. But the problem is that T-bills earn low returns. All the money spent on T-bills — a very substantial sum — could be earning far better returns invested elsewhere, or could be used to pay teachers and build highways at home, activities that bring returns of a different type. Dani Rodrik, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, estimates conservatively that maintaining reserves in excess of the three-month standard costs poor countries 1 percent of their economies annually — some $110 billion every year. Joseph Stiglitz, the Columbia University economist, says he thinks the real cost could be double that.

In his recent book, “Making Globalization Work,” Stiglitz proposes a solution. Adapting an old idea of John Maynard Keynes, he proposes a sort of insurance pool that would provide hard currency to countries going through times of crisis. Money actually changes hands only if a country needs the reserve, and the recipient must repay what it has used.

No one planned the rapid swelling of reserves. Other South-to-North subsidies, by contrast, have been built into the rules of globalization by international agreements. Consider the World Trade Organization’s requirements that all member countries respect patents and copyrights — patents on medicines and industrial and other products; copyrights on, say, music and movies. As poorer countries enter the W.T.O., they must agree to pay royalties on such goods — and a result is a net obligation of more than $40 billion annually that poorer countries owe to American and European corporations.

There are good reasons for countries to respect intellectual property, but doing so is also an overwhelming burden on the poorest people in poorer countries. After all, the single largest beneficiary of the intellectual-property system is the pharmaceutical industry. But consumers in poorer nations do not get much in return, as they do not form a lucrative enough market to inspire research on cures for many of their illnesses. Moreover, the intellectual-property rules make it difficult for poorer countries to manufacture less-expensive generic drugs that poor people rely on. The largest cost to poor countries is not money but health, as many people simply will not be able to find or afford brand-name medicine.

The hypercompetition for global investment has produced another important reverse subsidy: the tax holidays poor countries offer foreign investors. A company that announces it wants to make cars, televisions or pharmaceuticals in, say, east Asia, will then send its representatives to negotiate with government officials in China, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere, holding an auction for the best deal. The savviest corporations get not only 10-year tax holidays but also discounts on land, cheap government loans, below-market rates for electricity and water and government help in paying their workers.

Rich countries know better — the European Union, for example, regulates the incentives members can offer to attract investment. That car plant will most likely be built in one of the competing countries anyway — the incentives serve only to reduce the host country’s benefits. Since deals between corporations and governments are usually secret, it is hard to know how much investment incentives cost poorer countries — certainly tens of billions of dollars. Whatever the cost, it is growing, as country after country has passed laws enabling the offer of such incentives.

Human nature, not smart lobbying, is responsible for another poor-to-rich subsidy: the brain drain. The migration of highly educated people from poor nations is increasing. A small brain drain can benefit the South, as emigrants send money home and may return with new skills and capital. But in places where educated people are few and emigrants don’t go home again, the brain drain devastates. In many African countries, more than 40 percent of college-educated people emigrate to rich countries. Malawian nurses have moved to Britain and other English-speaking nations en masse, and now two-thirds of nursing posts in Malawi’s public health system are vacant. Zambia has lost three-quarters of its new physicians in recent years. Even in South Africa, 21 percent of graduating doctors migrate.

The financial consequences for the poorer nations can be severe. A doctor who moves from Johannesburg to North Dakota costs the South African government as much as $100,000, the price of training him there. As with patent enforcement, a larger cost may be in health. A lack of trained people — a gap that widens daily — is now the main barrier to fighting AIDS, malaria and other diseases in Africa.

Sometimes reverse subsidies are disguised. Rich-country governments spent $283 billion in 2005 to support and subsidize their own agriculture, mainly agribusiness. Artificially cheap food exported to poor countries might seem like a gift — but it is often a Trojan horse. Corn, rice or cotton exported by rich countries is so cheap that small farmers in poor countries cannot compete, so they stop farming. Three-quarters of the world’s poor people are rural. The African peasant with an acre and a hoe is losing her livelihood, and the benefits go mainly to companies like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill.

Most costly to poor countries, they have been drafted into paying for rich nations’ energy use. On a per capita basis, Americans emit more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere — and thus create more global warming — than anyone else. What we pay to drive a car or keep an industrial plant running is not the true cost of oil or coal. The real price would include the cost of the environmental damage that comes from burning these fuels. But even as we do not pay that price, other countries do. American energy use is being subsidized by tropical coastal nations, who appear to be global warming’s first victims. Some scientists argue that Bangladesh already has more powerful monsoon downpours and Honduras fiercer cyclones because of global warming — likely indicators of worse things ahead. The islands of the Maldives may someday be completely underwater. The costs these nations will pay do not appear on the global balance sheets. But they are the ultimate subsidy.

Tina Rosenberg is a contributing writer for the magazine.

Saturday, March 17

What We See in Hugo Chávez

The New York Times
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March 17, 2007

Buenos Aires

THE fervent welcome that greeted President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela during his visit to Argentina a week ago was inexplicable to some Argentines and left others indignant. Many here tend to mistrust populism and demagoguery, finding them redolent of Peronism. But even among the wary, a window of hope has opened, with Mr. Chávez as its symbol.

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since Juan Perón’s time. And it was the expansive waters of our own broad river that defined the vectors of force last weekend. For once, the tensions in the American hemisphere flowed on an east-west axis along the Río de la Plata — which means “River of Silver” and by extension, very appropriately in this case, “River of Money.”

The struggle was about energy, both concrete and metaphorical, and equally combustible in both forms. Across the river in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, the presence of President George W. Bush caused red-hot passions to flare, along with sizable protests like those he faced in Brazil. In Buenos Aires, my city, on the opposite bank of that river of money, red abounded as well, though in our case it had a very different connotation. Red was the color of President Chávez’s jacket and of many of the flags brought by the masses who flooded into a stadium to hear the president of Venezuela speak.

Unlike the homogenous rallies of Peronist times, the 30,000 people in this crowd came from very diverse backgrounds. In Argentina, the economic crisis of December 2001 significantly altered not only our social dynamic but our semantics. We no longer talk about the “pueblo” — which means town or village as well as people. Now we talk about the “gente,” which also means people, but with a different nuance, derived as it is from the Latin gens meaning race, clan or breed.

The new vocabulary transcends distinctions of class: the middle classes have now merged with the poor to demand their rights. Hence many students and professionals were in attendance that day, not necessarily attracted by the figure of President Chávez himself so much as by the anti-imperialist opportunity he symbolized. We Argentines, who once imagined ourselves more sophisticated, or more European, than the citizens of neighboring states, were brought closer to the rest of the continent by our impoverishment, and we find ourselves more open to the idea of pan-Latin American solidarity.

Perhaps last week’s crowd also recognized the part that President Chávez’s monetary aid played in our recuperation of that illusion known as “national identity.” For Argentina had virtually disappeared as an autonomous country during the presidency of Carlos Menem from 1989 to 1999, the era of our “carnal relations” with the United States, which took the form of spurious privatizations and a fictitious exchange rate.

While many in Argentina would, nevertheless, not hesitate to call the Venezuelan president a clown or a madman, it’s worth keeping in mind that a very heady dose of megalomania is a prerequisite for even dreaming of confronting a rival as overwhelmingly powerful as the United States — which is also led by a president viewed, in many quarters, as a clown and a madman.

President Chávez’s weapons of seduction are his superabundance of petrodollars and his obsession with a shared Latin American project. His plan is to realize the dream of Simón Bolívar, the old utopian vision of Latin American integration that today seems more viable than ever before.

It may be that President Bush chose to venture into these forgotten Southern latitudes to counter that vision. In Brazil, he tried to draw attention to the production of ethanol, an ecologically correct rival to petroleum that nonetheless depletes the earth. And in Uruguay, all Mr. Bush seemed to be trying to do was irritate the other governments of South America by promoting a Free Trade Area of the Americas project in opposition to Mercosur, the southern common market formed in 1991 by Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and, somewhat later, Venezuela.

These things sometimes backfire. President Bush found himself repudiated on one bank of the Plata while President Chávez was getting ovations on the opposite one: each contender in his corner and the moral triumph to the last man left standing, as in a boxing ring.

Some Argentines severely criticized President Nestor Kirchner for providing his Venezuelan counterpart with such a platform, complaining that President Chávez bought and paid for his visit by showering Argentina with dollars and benefits. Not so. The bargain seems fair — oil in exchange for agricultural technology and experts — and since he came to power, President Kirchner has made his country the platform for several other presidents from the Americas: Fidel Castro, Michelle Bachelet, Evo Morales and President Chávez himself, on previous occasions.

Two major Argentine characteristics are in play here: intrinsic distrust and the need for immediate gratification. Mr. Chávez awakens both of these inclinations, and it’s interesting to see them balance each other out. The dream of a single-currency Latin American Union, modeled on the European Union, to create, insofar as possible, a buffer against the hegemony of the United States no longer seems so impossible.

I’m no political analyst; I have delved into politics only as a fiction writer. But I’m an optimist by nature, and the feeling of empowerment that President Chávez instills, and that various South American governments are endorsing, strikes me as a good engine for further progress — a means of upgrading ourselves from the status of someone’s backyard into that of a truly autonomous region, beyond Mr. Chávez, Mr. Bush and every other form of demagoguery.

Luisa Valenzuela is the author of “Black Novel With Argentines” and “The Lizard’s Tail.” This article was translated by Esther Allen from the Spanish.

Tuesday, March 13

Times OpEd on Attorney Scandal

We wish we’d been surprised to learn that the White House was deeply involved in the politically motivated firing of eight United States attorneys, but the news had the unmistakable whiff of inevitability. This disaster is just part of the Bush administration’s sordid history of waving the bloody bullhorn of 9/11 for the basest of motives: the perpetuation of power for power’s sake.

Time and again, President Bush and his team have assured Americans that they needed new powers to prevent another attack by an implacable enemy. Time and again, Americans have discovered that these powers were not being used to make them safer, but in the service of Vice President Dick Cheney’s vision of a presidency so powerful that Congress and the courts are irrelevant, or Karl Rove’s fantasy of a permanent Republican majority.

In firing the prosecutors and replacing them without Senate approval, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales took advantage of a little-noticed provision that the administration and its Republican enablers in Congress had slipped into the 2006 expansion of the Patriot Act. The ostensible purpose was to allow the swift interim replacement of a United States attorney who was, for instance, killed by terrorism.

But these firings had nothing to do with national security — or officials’ claims that the attorneys were fired for poor performance. This looks like a political purge, pure and simple, and President Bush and his White House are in the thick of it.

Earlier, the White House insisted that it had approved the list of fired United States attorneys after it was compiled. Now it admits that White House officials helped prepare it. Harriet Miers, the White House counsel whom Mr. Bush tried to elevate to the Supreme Court, originally wanted to replace all 93 attorneys with Republican appointees.

The White House still says Mr. Bush was not involved in the firings, but newly released documents show that he personally fielded a senator’s political complaint about David Iglesias, who was fired as United States attorney in New Mexico. The papers suggest that the United States attorney in Arkansas was fired just to put a Rove protégé in his place, and a plan was mapped out by administration officials to “run out the clock” if lawmakers objected.

Among the documents is e-mail sent to Ms. Miers by Kyle Sampson, Mr. Gonzales’s chief of staff, ranking United States attorneys on factors like “exhibited loyalty.” Small wonder, then that United States Attorney Carol Lam of San Diego was fired. She had put one Republican congressman, Duke Cunningham, in jail and had opened an inquiry that put others at risk, along with party donors.

More disturbing details have come out about Mr. Iglesias’s firing. We knew he was ousted six weeks after Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico, made a wildly inappropriate phone call in which he asked if Mr. Iglesias intended to indict Democrats before last November’s election in a high-profile corruption scandal. We now know that Mr. Domenici took his complaints to Mr. Bush.

After Mr. Iglesias was fired, the deputy White House counsel, William Kelley, wrote in an e-mail note that Mr. Domenici’s chief of staff was “happy as a clam.” Another e-mail note, from Mr. Sampson, said Mr. Domenici was “not even waiting for Iglesias’s body to cool” before getting his list of preferred replacements to the White House.

Given what’s in those documents, it was astonishing to hear Mr. Gonzales continue to insist yesterday that he had no personal knowledge of discussions involving the individual attorneys. Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, was right on the mark when he said that if Mr. Gonzales didn’t know what Mr. Sampson was doing, “he doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what’s going on” at his department. Fortunately, last year’s election left Democrats like Mr. Schumer in the majority, with subpoena power. Otherwise, this and so many other scandals might never have come to light.

Mr. Gonzales, who has shown why he was such an awful choice for this job in the first place, should be called under oath to resolve the contradictions and inconsistencies in his story. Mr. Gonzales is willing to peddle almost any nonsense to the public (witness his astonishingly maladroit use of the Nixonian “mistakes were made” dodge yesterday). But lying to Congress under oath is another matter.

The Justice Department has been saying that it is committed to putting Senate-confirmed United States attorneys in every jurisdiction. But the newly released documents make it clear that the department was making an end run around the Senate — for baldly political reasons. Congress should broaden the investigation to determine whether any other prosecutors were forced out for not caving in to political pressure — or kept on because they did.

There was, for example, the decision by United States Attorney Chris Christie of New Jersey to open an investigation of Senator Bob Menendez just before his hotly contested re-election last November. Republicans, who would have held the Senate if Mr. Menendez had lost, used the news for attack ads. Then there was the career United States attorney in Guam who was removed by Mr. Bush in 2002 after he started investigating the superlobbyist Jack Abramoff. The prosecutor was replaced. The investigation was dropped.

In mid-December 2006, Mr. Gonzales’s aide, Mr. Sampson, wrote to a White House counterpart that using the Patriot Act to fire the Arkansas prosecutor and replace him with Mr. Rove’s man was risky — Congress could revoke the authority. But, he wrote, “if we don’t ever exercise it, then what’s the point of having it?”

If that sounds cynical, it is. It is also an accurate summary of the governing philosophy of this administration: What’s the point of having power if you don’t use it to get more power?

Friday, March 9

Battle of the Manly Men: Blood Bath With a Message

The New York Times
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“300” is about as violent as “Apocalypto” and twice as stupid. Adapted from a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, it offers up a bombastic spectacle of honor and betrayal, rendered in images that might have been airbrushed onto a customized van sometime in the late 1970s. The basic story is a good deal older. It’s all about the ancient Battle of Thermopylae, which unfolded at a narrow pass on the coast of Greece whose name translates as Hot Gates.

Hot Gates, indeed! Devotees of the pectoral, deltoid and other fine muscle groups will find much to savor as King Leonidas (Gerard Butler) leads 300 prime Spartan porterhouses into battle against Persian forces commanded by Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), a decadent self-proclaimed deity who wants, as all good movie villains do, to rule the world.

The Persians, pioneers in the art of facial piercing, have vastly greater numbers — including ninjas, dervishes, elephants, a charging rhino and an angry bald giant — but the Spartans clearly have superior health clubs and electrolysis facilities. They also hew to a warrior ethic of valor and freedom that makes them, despite their gleeful appetite for killing, the good guys in this tale. (It may be worth pointing out that unlike their mostly black and brown foes, the Spartans and their fellow Greeks are white.)

But not all the Spartans back in Sparta support their king on his mission. A gaggle of sickly, corrupt priests, bought off by the Persians, consult an oracular exotic dancer whose topless gyrations lead to a warning against going to war. And the local council is full of appeasers and traitors, chief among them a sardonic, shifty-eyed smoothy named Theron (Dominic West, known to fans of “The Wire” as the irrepressible McNulty).

Too cowardly to challenge Leonidas man to man, he fixes his attention on Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey), a loyal wife and Spartan patriot who fights the good fight on the home front. Gorgo understands her husband’s noble purpose, the higher cause for which he is willing to sacrifice his life. “Come home with your shield or on it,” she tells him as he heads off into battle after a night of somber marital whoopee. Later she observes that “freedom is not free.”

Another movie — Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s “Team America,” whose wooden puppets were more compelling actors than most of the cast of “300” — calculated the cost at $1.05. I would happily pay a nickel less, in quarters or arcade tokens, for a vigorous 10-minute session with the video game that “300” aspires to become. Its digitally tricked-up color scheme, while impressive at times, is hard to tolerate for nearly two hours (true masochists can seek out the Imax version), and the hectic battle scenes would be much more exciting in the first person. I want to chop up some Persians too!

There are a few combat sequences that achieve a grim, brutal grandeur, notably an early engagement in which the Spartans, hunkered behind their shields, push back against a Persian line, forcing enemy soldiers off a cliff into the water. The big idea, spelled out over and over in voice-over and dialogue in case the action is too subtle, is that the free, manly men of Sparta fight harder and more valiantly than the enslaved masses under Xerxes’ command. Allegory hunters will find some gristly morsels of topicality tossed in their direction, but you can find many of the same themes, conveyed with more nuance and irony, in a Pokémon cartoon.

Zack Snyder’s first film, a remake of George Romero’s “Dawn of the Dead,” showed wit as well as technical dexterity. While some of that filmmaking acumen is evident here, the script for “300,” which he wrote with Kurt Johnstad and Michael B. Gordon, is weighed down by the lumbering portentousness of the original book, whose arresting images are themselves undermined by the kind of pomposity that frequently mistakes itself for genius.

In time, “300” may find its cultural niche as an object of camp derision, like the sword-and-sandals epics of an earlier, pre-computer-generated-imagery age. At present, though, its muscle-bound, grunting self-seriousness is more tiresome than entertaining. Go tell the Spartans, whoever they are, to stay home and watch wrestling.

“300” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). Much butchery, some lechery.

Monday, March 5

Our Ann Coulter Problem

Why the press can't ignore her.

Ann Coulter. Click image to expand.Ann Coulter

Ann Coulter shocked nobody last week by calling presidential candidate John Edwards a "faggot" during her appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Here's the YouTube video, as well as the quotation captured by the Associated Press:

I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word "faggot," so I—so kind of an impasse, can't really talk about Edwards.

It's true that the Democratic Party leaders displayed outrage. The Edwards campaign e-mailed the Coulter news to its supporters, calling her remarks a "shameless display of bigotry." Howard Dean, Democratic National Party chairman, called her statement "hate-filled" and demanded that the Republican candidates for president repudiate it.

The three Republican front-runners did exactly as Dean instructed with such speed that they must maintain 24/7 "Ann Coulter Damage Control Departments." A spokesman for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called the comments "wildly inappropriate." Rudy Giuliani harmonized, saying the comments "were completely inappropriate." Mitt Romney's spokesman slammed Coulter's quip as "an offensive remark." Top conservative bloggers expressed similar indignation, which the Human Events Web site collected: "Ann Coulter doesn't speak for us," harrumphed Red State. Captain's Quarters' Ed Morrissey wrote that "such offensive language—and the cavalier attitude that lies behind it—is intolerable to us." Newsbusters' Warner Todd Huston dubbed Coulter "the H.L. Mencken of our times ... minus the intellect."

The context of Coulter's one-liner was probably too Hollywood for her audience. (As UPI explained, Coulter was probably riffing off actor Isaiah Washington's recent—and calculated—entry into rehab after he called one of his Grey's Anatomy co-stars a "faggot.")'s Dean Barnett wrote that "uncomfortable silence" and not "boisterous laughter" followed her remark.

Coulter has been drawing on her outré political vocabulary for so long that the CPAC utterance couldn't have come as a surprise to her foes, her allies, or even the apolitical who avoid the news. The Washington Monthly cataloged her gift for extreme speech five years ago, just as she was perfecting her political phonemes. Here are a few choice Coulter cuts:

"[Clinton] masturbates in the sinks."—Rivera Live, Aug. 2, 1999

"God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours.' "—Hannity & Colmes, June 20, 2001

The "backbone of the Democratic Party" is a "typical fat, implacable welfare recipient"—syndicated column, Oct. 29, 1999

To a disabled Vietnam vet: "People like you caused us to lose that war."—MSNBC, Oct. 11, 1997

"Women like Pamela Harriman and Patricia Duff are basically Anna Nicole Smith from the waist down. Let's just call it for what it is. They're whores."—, Nov. 16, 2000

"I think there should be a literacy test and a poll tax for people to vote."—Hannity & Colmes, Aug. 17, 1999

"My libertarian friends are probably getting a little upset now but I think that's because they never appreciate the benefits of local fascism."—MSNBC, Feb. 8, 1997

It's probably unfair to Ramsey Clark to call Coulter his right-wing analogue, but there you are. He defends the indefensible, she attacks the undefended. Neither have any shame. Both regard negative publicity as good publicity. Both color their hair.

The press marginalized Clark for his nuttism long ago, but every odious phrase turned by Coulter only makes her a bigger star. Perhaps the newspapers, TV news, the blogs, and the politicians feel obliged to censure her publicly for her transgressions because, unlike Ramsey, she makes them in acceptable or semiacceptable settings such as at a CPAC conference or on a TV show and not at Saddam Hussein's trial in Baghdad. The press and the pols are also afraid that silence in the face of new Coulterisms will be interpreted as sanction, so they huff and puff at her scuzzy comments, as they did this week, to prove their own enlightenment. All that does is advertise Coulter's ideas to still-greater audiences, which translates into additional book sales and TV appearances, which drive still more book sales. She couldn't be happier.

Not everybody can pull off this trick. Dinesh D'Souza out-Coulters Coulter in his new book, The Enemy at Home, published by Doubleday, by blaming 9/11 on America's cultural left. (I'm not kidding.) Although he's mastered the art of the outrageous, he's too easily wounded by his critics because he wants to be taken seriously as a "scholar." The attacks on his ridiculous book have produced genuine sadness, as all this I-can't-get-no-respect grimacing in this January 2007 piece for the Washington Post Outlook section indicates.

Coulter doesn't make D'Souza's mistake of striving for respect. Effrontery is what she does for a living, and she's comfortable with it. So, I suppose it's only a matter of time before she calls Barack Obama a Black Panther masquerading as Uncle Tom, describes Hillary Clinton as a dyke Hitler, or reaches for something even more irreverent. As long as respectable forums like TV talk shows, New York publishers, and CPAC continue to give her a platform, the press won't be able to leave her alone. And this chapter of the Coulter show hasn't even concluded. According to Media Matters for America, Coulter will appear on CNN's Paula Zahn Now tonight.

Sunday, March 4

Darwin’s God: A scientific exploration of how we have come to believe in God

Published: March 4, 2007

[Quick summary: Religions are an evolutionary byproduct of a successful adaptations to import causality and agency to phenomena (even when it is unwarranted- better to be safe than sorry), to imagine "mind" as distinct and separate from "body" within our social interactions, and our cognitive impossibility to contemplate the nothingness that is death. On a social level, religions (especially the more demanding and ritualistic ones) facilitate strong community bonds, where the time and effort wasted in rituals is more than compensated for by the sustainance the community provides the individual. -ed]

God has always been a puzzle for Scott Atran. When he was 10 years old, he scrawled a plaintive message on the wall of his bedroom in Baltimore. “God exists,” he wrote in black and orange paint, “or if he doesn’t, we’re in trouble.” Atran has been struggling with questions about religion ever since — why he himself no longer believes in God and why so many other people, everywhere in the world, apparently do.

Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, “belief in hope beyond reason” — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. “Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?” asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-à-terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. “If you have negative sentiments toward religion,” he tells them, “the box will destroy whatever you put inside it.” Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver’s license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don’t believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Atran first conducted the magic-box demonstration in the 1980s, when he was at Cambridge University studying the nature of religious belief. He had received a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and, in the course of his fieldwork, saw evidence of religion everywhere he looked — at archaeological digs in Israel, among the Mayans in Guatemala, in artifact drawers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Atran is Darwinian in his approach, which means he tries to explain behavior by how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors. But it was not clear to him what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?

The magic-box demonstration helped set Atran on a career studying why humans might have evolved to be religious, something few people were doing back in the ’80s. Today, the effort has gained momentum, as scientists search for an evolutionary explanation for why belief in God exists — not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.

This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In “The God Delusion,” published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. “Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful,” Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote “The End of Faith,” and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote “Breaking the Spell.” The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?

In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

“All of our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs . . . are equally organically founded,” William James wrote in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” James, who taught philosophy and experimental psychology at Harvard for more than 30 years, based his book on a 1901 lecture series in which he took some early tentative steps at breaching the science-religion divide.

In the century that followed, a polite convention generally separated science and religion, at least in much of the Western world. Science, as the old trope had it, was assigned the territory that describes how the heavens go; religion, how to go to heaven.

Anthropologists like Atran and psychologists as far back as James had been looking at the roots of religion, but the mutual hands-off policy really began to shift in the 1990s. Religion made incursions into the traditional domain of science with attempts to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom and to choke off human embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds. Scientists responded with counterincursions. Experts from the hard sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists in the study of religion, making God an object of scientific inquiry.

The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists. You might think that the byproduct theorists would tend to be nonbelievers, looking for a way to explain religion as a fluke, while the adaptationists would be more likely to be believers who can intuit the emotional, spiritual and community advantages that accompany faith. Or you might think they would all be atheists, because what believer would want to subject his own devotion to rationalism’s cold, hard scrutiny? But a scientist’s personal religious view does not always predict which side he will take. And this is just one sign of how complex and surprising this debate has become.

Angels, demons, spirits, wizards, gods and witches have peppered folk religions since mankind first started telling stories. Charles Darwin noted this in “The Descent of Man.” “A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies,” he wrote, “seems to be universal.” According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features — belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events — are found in virtually every culture on earth.

This is certainly true in the United States. About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent.”

When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. In many ways, it’s an exercise in post-hoc hypothesizing: what would have been the advantage, when the human species first evolved, for an individual who happened to have a mutation that led to, say, a smaller jaw, a bigger forehead, a better thumb? How about certain behavioral traits, like a tendency for risk-taking or for kindness?

Atran saw such questions as a puzzle when applied to religion. So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn’t this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking “what is materially false to be true” and “what is materially true to be false.” One example of this is the belief that even after someone dies and the body demonstrably disintegrates, that person will still exist, will still be able to laugh and cry, to feel pain and joy. This confusion “does not appear to be a reasonable evolutionary strategy,” Atran wrote in “In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion” in 2002. “Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It’s unlikely that such a species could survive.” He began to look for a sideways explanation: if religious belief was not adaptive, perhaps it was associated with something else that was.

Atran intended to study mathematics when he entered Columbia as a precocious 17-year-old. But he was distracted by the radical politics of the late ’60s. One day in his freshman year, he found himself at an antiwar rally listening to Margaret Mead, then perhaps the most famous anthropologist in America. Atran, dressed in a flamboyant Uncle Sam suit, stood up and called her a sellout for saying the protesters should be writing to their congressmen instead of staging demonstrations. “Young man,” the unflappable Mead said, “why don’t you come see me in my office?”

Atran, equally unflappable, did go to see her — and ended up working for Mead, spending much of his time exploring the cabinets of curiosities in her tower office at the American Museum of Natural History. Soon he switched his major to anthropology.

Many of the museum specimens were religious, Atran says. So were the artifacts he dug up on archaeological excursions in Israel in the early ’70s. Wherever he turned, he encountered the passion of religious belief. Why, he wondered, did people work so hard against their preference for logical explanations to maintain two views of the world, the real and the unreal, the intuitive and the counterintuitive?

Maybe cognitive effort was precisely the point. Maybe it took less mental work than Atran realized to hold belief in God in one’s mind. Maybe, in fact, belief was the default position for the human mind, something that took no cognitive effort at all.

While still an undergraduate, Atran decided to explore these questions by organizing a conference on universal aspects of culture and inviting all his intellectual heroes: the linguist Noam Chomsky, the psychologist Jean Piaget, the anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Gregory Bateson (who was also Margaret Mead’s ex-husband), the Nobel Prize-winning biologists Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob. It was 1974, and the only site he could find for the conference was at a location just outside Paris. Atran was a scraggly 22-year-old with a guitar who had learned his French from comic books. To his astonishment, everyone he invited agreed to come.

Atran is a sociable man with sharp hazel eyes, who sparks provocative conversations the way other men pick bar fights. As he traveled in the ’70s and ’80s, he accumulated friends who were thinking about the issues he was: how culture is transmitted among human groups and what evolutionary function it might serve. “I started looking at history, and I wondered why no society ever survived more than three generations without a religious foundation as its raison d’être,” he says. Soon he turned to an emerging subset of evolutionary theory — the evolution of human cognition.

Some cognitive scientists think of brain functioning in terms of modules, a series of interconnected machines, each one responsible for a particular mental trick. They do not tend to talk about a God module per se; they usually consider belief in God a consequence of other mental modules.

Religion, in this view, is “a family of cognitive phenomena that involves the extraordinary use of everyday cognitive processes,” Atran wrote in “In Gods We Trust.” “Religions do not exist apart from the individual minds that constitute them and the environments that constrain them, any more than biological species and varieties exist independently of the individual organisms that compose them and the environments that conform them.”

At around the time “In Gods We Trust” appeared five years ago, a handful of other scientists — Pascal Boyer, now at Washington University; Justin Barrett, now at Oxford; Paul Bloom at Yale — were addressing these same questions. In synchrony they were moving toward the byproduct theory.

Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood’s being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.

Something similar explains aspects of brain evolution, too, say the byproduct theorists. Which brings us to the idea of the spandrel.

Stephen Jay Gould, the famed evolutionary biologist at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed “spandrel” to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure is not there for any purpose; it is there because that is what happens when arches align.

In architecture, a spandrel can be neutral or it can be made functional. Building a staircase, for instance, creates a space underneath that is innocuous, just a blank sort of triangle. But if you put a closet there, the under-stairs space takes on a function, unrelated to the staircase’s but useful nonetheless. Either way, functional or nonfunctional, the space under the stairs is a spandrel, an unintended byproduct.

“Natural selection made the human brain big,” Gould wrote, “but most of our mental properties and potentials may be spandrels — that is, nonadaptive side consequences of building a device with such structural complexity.”

The possibility that God could be a spandrel offered Atran a new way of understanding the evolution of religion. But a spandrel of what, exactly?

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like “chase” and “capture.” They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. “The most central concepts in religions are related to agents,” Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, “Why Would Anyone Believe in God?” Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, “people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world.”

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. “We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us,” Barrett wrote, “and ‘stuff just happens’ is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events.” The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus’s thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.

A third cognitive trick is a kind of social intuition known as theory of mind. It’s an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word “theory” suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.

But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The “false-belief test” is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?

Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that’s where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.

The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to “rapidly and economically” distinguish good guys from bad guys. But how did folkpsychology — an understanding of ordinary people’s ordinary minds — allow for a belief in supernatural, omniscient minds? And if the byproduct theorists are right and these beliefs were of little use in finding food or leaving more offspring, why did they persist?

Atran ascribes the persistence to evolutionary misdirection, which, he says, happens all the time: “Evolution always produces something that works for what it works for, and then there’s no control for however else it’s used.” On a sunny weekday morning, over breakfast at a French cafe on upper Broadway, he tried to think of an analogy and grinned when he came up with an old standby: women’s breasts. Because they are associated with female hormones, he explained, full breasts indicate a woman is fertile, and the evolution of the male brain’s preference for them was a clever mating strategy. But breasts are now used for purposes unrelated to reproduction, to sell anything from deodorant to beer. “A Martian anthropologist might look at this and say, ‘Oh, yes, so these breasts must have somehow evolved to sell hygienic stuff or food to human beings,’ ” Atran said. But the Martian would, of course, be wrong. Equally wrong would be to make the same mistake about religion, thinking it must have evolved to make people behave a certain way or feel a certain allegiance.

That is what most fascinated Atran. “Why is God in there?” he wondered.

The idea of an infallible God is comfortable and familiar, something children readily accept. You can see this in the experiment Justin Barrett conducted recently — a version of the traditional false-belief test but with a religious twist. Barrett showed young children a box with a picture of crackers on the outside. What do you think is inside this box? he asked, and the children said, “Crackers.” Next he opened it and showed them that the box was filled with rocks. Then he asked two follow-up questions: What would your mother say is inside this box? And what would God say?

As earlier theory-of-mind experiments already showed, 3- and 4-year-olds tended to think Mother was infallible, and since the children knew the right answer, they assumed she would know it, too. They usually responded that Mother would say the box contained rocks. But 5- and 6-year-olds had learned that Mother, like any other person, could hold a false belief in her mind, and they tended to respond that she would be fooled by the packaging and would say, “Crackers.”

And what would God say? No matter what their age, the children, who were all Protestants, told Barrett that God would answer, “Rocks.” This was true even for the older children, who, as Barrett understood it, had developed folkpsychology and had used it when predicting a wrong response for Mother. They had learned that, in certain situations, people could be fooled — but they had also learned that there is no fooling God.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called “minimally counterintuitive”: weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.

Atran, along with Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, studied the idea of minimally counterintuitive agents earlier this decade. They presented college students with lists of fantastical creatures and asked them to choose the ones that seemed most “religious.” The convincingly religious agents, the students said, were not the most outlandish — not the turtle that chatters and climbs or the squealing, flowering marble — but those that were just outlandish enough: giggling seaweed, a sobbing oak, a talking horse. Giggling seaweed meets the requirement of being minimally counterintuitive, Atran wrote. So does a God who has a human personality except that he knows everything or a God who has a mind but has no body.

It is not enough for an agent to be minimally counterintuitive for it to earn a spot in people’s belief systems. An emotional component is often needed, too, if belief is to take hold. “If your emotions are involved, then that’s the time when you’re most likely to believe whatever the religion tells you to believe,” Atran says. Religions stir up emotions through their rituals — swaying, singing, bowing in unison during group prayer, sometimes working people up to a state of physical arousal that can border on frenzy. And religions gain strength during the natural heightening of emotions that occurs in times of personal crisis, when the faithful often turn to shamans or priests. The most intense personal crisis, for which religion can offer powerfully comforting answers, is when someone comes face to face with mortality.

In John Updike’s celebrated early short story “Pigeon Feathers,” 14-year-old David spends a lot of time thinking about death. He suspects that adults are lying when they say his spirit will live on after he dies. He keeps catching them in inconsistencies when he asks where exactly his soul will spend eternity. “Don’t you see,” he cries to his mother, “if when we die there’s nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It’s just an ocean of horror.”

The story ends with David’s tiny revelation and his boundless relief. The boy gets a gun for his 15th birthday, which he uses to shoot down some pigeons that have been nesting in his grandmother’s barn. Before he buries them, he studies the dead birds’ feathers. He is amazed by their swirls of color, “designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture.” And suddenly the fears that have plagued him are lifted, and with a “slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever.”

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion’s role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

But the spandrelists counter that saying these beliefs are consolation does not mean they offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors. “The human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear,” wrote Pascal Boyer, a leading byproduct theorist, in “Religion Explained,” which came out a year before Atran’s book. “Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long.”

Whether or not it is adaptive, belief in the afterlife gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world. This brings us back to folkpsychology. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in “Tragic Sense of Life.” “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing.”

Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do, as a study at the Florida Atlantic University demonstrated a few years ago. Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, the psychologists who conducted the study, used finger puppets to act out the story of a mouse, hungry and lost, who is spotted by an alligator. “Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator,” the narrator says at the end. “Brown Mouse is not alive anymore.”

Afterward, Bering and Bjorklund asked their subjects, ages 4 to 12, what it meant for Brown Mouse to be “not alive anymore.” Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Does he still want to go home? Most said the mouse no longer needed to eat or drink. But a large proportion, especially the younger ones, said that he still had thoughts, still loved his mother and still liked cheese. The children understood what it meant for the mouse’s body to cease to function, but many believed that something about the mouse was still alive.

“Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways,” says Bering, now at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. “In this study, it seems, the reason afterlife beliefs are so prevalent is that underlying them is our inability to simulate our nonexistence.”

It might be just as impossible to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones. A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, Bering said, so it’s natural for it to continue much as before after the other person’s death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive.

Belief is our fallback position, according to Bering; it is our reflexive style of thought. “We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none,” he says. “It’s natural; it’s how our minds work.”

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors. This is where the action is in the science of God debate, with a coterie of adaptationists arguing on behalf of the primary benefits, in terms of survival advantages, of religious belief.

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today’s food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with “a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections.”

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. “Organisms are a product of natural selection,” he wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society,” which came out in 2002, the same year as Atran’s book, and staked out the adaptationist view. “Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense.”

Wilson’s father was Sloan Wilson, author of “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit,” an emblem of mid-’50s suburban anomie that was turned into a film starring Gregory Peck. Sloan Wilson became a celebrity, with young women asking for his autograph, especially after his next novel, “A Summer Place,” became another blockbuster movie. The son grew up wanting to do something to make his famous father proud.

“I knew I couldn’t be a novelist,” said Wilson, who crackled with intensity during a telephone interview, “so I chose something as far as possible from literature — I chose science.” He is disarmingly honest about what motivated him: “I was very ambitious, and I wanted to make a mark.” He chose to study human evolution, he said, in part because he had some of his father’s literary leanings and the field required a novelist’s attention to human motivations, struggles and alliances — as well as a novelist’s flair for narrative.

Wilson eventually chose to study religion not because religion mattered to him personally — he was raised in a secular Protestant household and says he has long been an atheist — but because it was a lens through which to look at and revivify a branch of evolution that had fallen into disrepute. When Wilson was a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. “I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big,” he recalled. It wasn’t until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that “religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all.”

Dawkins once called Wilson’s defense of group selection “sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity.” Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it “mind blind” for essentially ignoring the role of the brain’s mental machinery. The adaptationists “cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief,” Atran wrote. “They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be.”

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person’s behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person’s reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life’s challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

“The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs,” Wilson wrote in “Darwin’s Cathedral.” It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, “a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.” For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have “highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems” than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that “what seems to be an adversarial relationship” between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that “keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel.”

Even if Wilson is right that religion enhances group fitness, the question remains: Where does God come in? Why is a religious group any different from groups for which a fitness argument is never even offered — a group of fraternity brothers, say, or Yankees fans?

Richard Sosis, an anthropologist with positions at the University of Connecticut and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has suggested a partial answer. Like many adaptationists, Sosis focuses on the way religion might be adaptive at the individual level. But even adaptations that help an individual survive can sometimes play themselves out through the group. Consider religious rituals.

“Religious and secular rituals can both promote cooperation,” Sosis wrote in American Scientist in 2004. But religious rituals “generate greater belief and commitment” because they depend on belief rather than on proof. The rituals are “beyond the possibility of examination,” he wrote, and a commitment to them is therefore emotional rather than logical — a commitment that is, in Sosis’s view, deeper and more long-lasting.

Rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion’s core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group. “By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun,” Sosis wrote, “ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: ‘Hey! Look, I’m a haredi’ — or extremely pious — ‘Jew. If you are also a member of this group, you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this?’ ” These “signaling” rituals can grant the individual a sense of belonging and grant the group some freedom from constant and costly monitoring to ensure that their members are loyal and committed. The rituals are harsh enough to weed out the infidels, and both the group and the individual believers benefit.

In 2003, Sosis and Bradley Ruffle of Ben Gurion University in Israel sought an explanation for why Israel’s religious communes did better on average than secular communes in the wake of the economic crash of most of the country’s kibbutzim. They based their study on a standard economic game that measures cooperation. Individuals from religious communes played the game more cooperatively, while those from secular communes tended to be more selfish. It was the men who attended synagogue daily, not the religious women or the less observant men, who showed the biggest differences. To Sosis, this suggested that what mattered most was the frequent public display of devotion. These rituals, he wrote, led to greater cooperation in the religious communes, which helped them maintain their communal structure during economic hard times.

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay in Natural History that called for a truce between religion and science. “The net of science covers the empirical universe,” he wrote. “The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.” Gould was emphatic about keeping the domains separate, urging “respectful discourse” and “mutual humility.” He called the demarcation “nonoverlapping magisteria” from the Latin magister, meaning “canon.”

Richard Dawkins had a history of spirited arguments with Gould, with whom he disagreed about almost everything related to the timing and focus of evolution. But he reserved some of his most venomous words for nonoverlapping magisteria. “Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths,” he wrote in “The God Delusion.” “Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? . . . A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?”

The separation, other critics said, left untapped the potential richness of letting one worldview inform the other. “Even if Gould was right that there were two domains, what religion does and what science does,” says Daniel Dennett (who, despite his neo-atheist label, is not as bluntly antireligious as Dawkins and Harris are), “that doesn’t mean science can’t study what religion does. It just means science can’t do what religion does.”

The idea that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon might seem to require an atheistic philosophy as a starting point. Not necessarily. Even some neo-atheists aren’t entirely opposed to religion. Sam Harris practices Buddhist-inspired meditation. Daniel Dennett holds an annual Christmas sing-along, complete with hymns and carols that are not only harmonically lush but explicitly pious.

And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in “an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being,” as he wrote in an e-mail message. “I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other.”

At first blush, Barrett’s faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn’t the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?

“Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people,” Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. “Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?” Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. “Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?”

What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the “God of the gaps” view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer, has written recently for the magazine about the neurobiology of lying and about obesity.