The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher

Mideast Oil Forever?

Backlogs of History

The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher

Dmitri Tymoczko, in "The Nitrous Oxide Philosopher" (May Atlantic), at times qualifies the religious beliefs of William James as "potentially" false. However, the conclusion of the article, where Tymoczko seems to be speaking for himself, is less tentative. There he speaks of "the pleasing illusions of the religious visionary," and "the pleasing illusions of religious belief."

As James cautioned in The Will to Believe, "If we are to discuss the question at all, it must involve a living option. If for any of you religion be a hypothesis that cannot, by any living possibility be true, then you need go no farther." Confirmed pragmatist that he was, James did not conceive of truth in absolute terms, but he concluded in the final lecture of The Varieties of Religious Experience that "that which produces effects within another reality must be termed a reality itself, so I feel as if we had no philosophic excuse for calling the unseen or mystical world unreal." Without such openness and respect, any consideration of religion risks taking on a condescending tone, even when it has the meritorious object of protecting religion's free expression. I am afraid that this is the way Tymoczko's argument strikes me when he reduces the Native American's peyote-induced religious experience, along with the non-drug-induced experiences of great mystics throughout the centuries, to "pleasing illusions."

Rose Hoover

Dmitri Tymoczko is wrong when he states flatly that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in effect reinstated the Native American Church's right to use drugs in its religious rituals. The RFRA does no such thing. It simply restores the requirement that the government demonstrate a "compelling state interest" to legitimize any action that inhibits a religious practice. States wishing to ban ritual drug use may still argue that such a compelling interest--control of dangerous drugs--does exist and validates prohibition.

Contrary to the author's assumption, Justice Antonin Scalia and other signers of his majority opinion in the Oregon case (Employment Division v. Smith) were not much concerned about the issue of drug use and the "double standard." Scalia even hinted in his opinion that he favored states' legalizing Native American ritual drug use--as Oregon has now done after winning the right not to tolerate it. Scalia was more concerned over the general problem of order, which he thought arises if any government action that incidentally restricts a religious practice must be considered presumptively invalid pending a showing of a compelling state interest. Rochester, Minn.

Thomas Robbins

It is disturbing to think that religious belief might be useful and yet false--even William James, in his later years, backed away from this unsettling possibility. Religious believers (and people sympathetic to religion) naturally want to believe that religion is at least potentially true; atheists naturally do not like imagining that it contributes substantially to human welfare. Yet the disturbing nature of this thought should not prevent us from considering it carefully. If we do face a set of difficult choices between pleasing illusions and disappointing truth, we should confront the problem, not avoid it for fear of upsetting people.

Judging that states had failed to meet the "compelling interest" standard, several courts (notably the California Supreme Court, in People v. Woody [1964]) have upheld Native Americans' right to use peyote in their religious rituals. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act effectively restored this route to legalized drug use. The RFRA has also been used (in an Eighth Circuit court decision last February) to overturn Rastafarians' marijuana-possession convictions. Furthermore, in 1994 Congress extended the RFRA's protection of religious freedom, legalizing Native American peyote use in all fifty states.

Speculating about judicial motivations is a tricky and potentially unrewarding business. Suffice it to say that the "double standard" should be an issue of real concern to all of us, Justice Scalia included. Having recognized religious drug use as legitimate in one particular case, we should think about extending this recognition to others whose claims are similarly strong.

Mideast Oil Forever?

Joseph J. Romm and Charles B. Curtis assert that fuel-cell technology has the best chance of replacing petroleum in transportation ("Mideast Oil Forever?" April Atlantic). It is a point well taken, but it deserves some amplification. First, it could well be that the long-term (whatever that is supposed to mean) context in which they are placing their hopes may shrink considerably. Romm and Curtis presumably didn't know it when they wrote their piece, but the German car maker Daimler-Benz subsequently announced that it would present its first fuel-cell passenger car, developed in collaboration with the Canadian company Ballard Power Systems, at a press conference in Berlin on May 14. By comparison, under the Department of Energy's timetable the first American prototype is not expected to be unveiled until some time around the turn of the century and maybe even later.

The Daimler-Benz announcement caught many people by surprise and is regarded as a major milestone in the field. Although many people believed that Daimler-Benz and Ballard were generally ahead of those American and Japanese car makers that are working on fuel-cell projects, nobody expected that Daimler would go public that soon.

Ballard rolled out prototype fuel-cell-powered buses a couple of years ago. Chicago, Vancouver, and possibly Chula Vista, California, each will put three of them on the road in real-life operations for paying passengers either late this or early next year.

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