Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Fuss Over What to Call Christmas

What's going on here? Can we use the word "Christmas" in a public setting, or must we always say "Holidays?" Must "Christmas" be restricted to Christian settings or used only in communities of shared faith? Stores and advertisers are caught in the crossfire between opposing parties. One resident was even advised by the neighborhood association to remove a creche from his front yard.

Fortunately, I can explain. We are seeing a battle between two mind sets. One I will call traditional, and the other I will call multi-cultural or pluralistic. It all stems from the cultural transformation that began in the 60's that did two things:(1)it heightened the sense of identity within groups, especially those that had been subordinated by the reigning culture, and (2) it stimulated a demand that their rights, interests, and preferences be given equal recognition. Women, blacks, gays, other minority groups, along with secularists, were affected by this two-fold change change of outlook. The impact reverberated though society. The result was a rise of a multi-cultural consciousness which insists that previously neglected or subordinated groups receive equal regard in a new pluralism in which hegemony by one cultural group or perspective is not allowed.

This provoked a reaction by the traditionalists who felt their interests, values, customs, and preferences were threatened. Accustomed to having their way in the public domain, including commerce, they insisted that what has been common practice remain so.

So the battle is underway. What is funny about the traditionalist position is that tradition in this context means roughly the prevailing practices during the lifetime and memory of the cultural majority and their parents and grandparents or roughly the first half of the 20th century. Forgotten is that an annual observance of the birth of Jesus is not a New Testament practice. Memory of the resurrection was far more important. Neglected also is the fact that December 25 involved the adoption and Christianizing of a pagan sun festival in the 4th century.

More pertinent is the fact that the early Puritans hated Christmas as unbiblical. In Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681 it was a crime to celebrate the occasion by feasting and not working. Until well into the 19th century this reticence regarding and objection to Christmas observance continued among many Protestants. Not until the 20th century did it acquire the importance in commercial and domestic life it has today with all the symbols and practices we all know so well. Among the reasons it is such a big deal today were the growing popularity of St. Nick based on the images from Clement Moore's poem and the drawings of Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly. With the rise of high-powered advertising and the credit card, the stage was set, symbolized by the annual Friday shopping frenzy the day after Thanksgiving.

Christians, especially Protestants, are accustomed to dominating the culture and having special privileges regarding the customs, symbols, habits, and practices surrounding it the season. Some are upset at the new pluralism that demands that public displays, language, and observances reflect the multicultural reality of America today.

So what shall we do? The logic of capitalism will work well in commerce to find the proper accommodation of conflicting demands that will maximize profit margins. I would urge all other parties to cool it, simmer down, take a deep breath, and relax. We are all overly sensitive these days about our own prerogatives. The foundations of civilization, decency, and religion are not at stake here. Cosmic equilibrium does not hang in the balance. Christians should realize that the celebration of Christmas in the familiar ways of a half-century ago is a historically contingent development and not of the essence of the faith and that they do not require recognition by businesses and governments to authenticate their religion.

Pluralists and secularists should recognize that huge numbers of Americans identify themselves at least nominally as Christians and give them a little leeway if this is recognized publicly in some ways (though not officially by governments) in non-intimidating, non-coercive ways that involve no loss of their own worth or identity. Both sides need to give a little, calm down, and quell the hysteria.

No great principles of natural right or Constitutional validity are in question regarding whether Sears courts shoppers with Christmas or holiday advertising. Religious symbols and language peculiar to a particular religion should, of course, not be given governmental support or sanction in the public sphere common to us all. Beyond that, we would all do well to loosen the springs of our sensitivities and allow some room in the public sphere for non-threatening, non-congenial practices, even if they get into our space a bit in ways we would not prefer.

Do I expect my advice to be taken? Of course not! The zealots on both extremes of the spectrum are too wrapped up in their own partisan concerns to let anything like civility, tolerance, perspective, common sense, a sense of humor, historical fact,and -- well -- the Christmas/holiday spirit moderate their passions.

Perhaps we could all say "Yo Saturnalia" (let's hear it for the god Saturn), which after all was the original meaning of the day taken over by Christians.

PS With thanks to the column by Adam Cohen in The New York Times (Sunday, December 4, 2005).

Friday, November 25, 2005

Believing What We Want To

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no shortage exists of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone wants to believe.

In the previous entry I quoted two good people who effortlessly turned a tentative, disputable scientific finding into a dogmatic certainty that was favorable to the outlook of each. They could not know the truth because it is not yet known, but they spoke as if they were already in possession of it. They were not lying in the sense of deliberately misrepresenting things, but they made claims that betrayed nothing of the uncertainty in the actual situation. One of them may be proven right or more right in the end, but the outcome is not known at the present.

This is one example of a widespread phenomenon. A president announced that the possession of weapons of mass destruction by a reckless, cruel dictator justified a preemptive strike lest we be suddenly attacked. The claim we now know was false, but the harm has been done. Precious lives have been needlessly lost, billions of dollars wasted. Now we find ourselves in a situation that permits no easy resolution, and the nation is bitterly divided.

Did he lie deliberately to justify a move he intended to make on some real or pretended premise anyway? Was he honestly misled by faulty but sincere intelligence? Did he interpret the available information in the way most favorable to his purposes? He claimed to know more than he did and was shown to be mistaken.

Where does honest ignorance end and willing, complicit conviction begin? When does sincere belief in the presence of uncertainty take on an element of deceit that produces truth claims held with unjustifiable certainty? To what extent does desire turn a objective possibility into a subjective reality, a hypothesis into a firm belief communicated as a certain truth? Does wanting it to be true make it seem so real that we cannot deny it? Somewhere in these murky areas in where much of our public discourse transpires.

How much credit should be given to the massive tax cuts mainly benefiting the ultra-rich for whatever economic upturn we have experienced? Tax cutters and their supporters know for sure. We may safely surmise that to some extent political dogma turns what must remain an economic uncertainty -- given the complexity involved -- into a indubitable truth.

Environmentalists know that global warming is attributable in a major way to human activity. Polluters and their defenders know that the phenomenon -- to the extent real at all -- is due mainly to natural cycles.

Since this is a blog and not a book, I will cease, only urging that other instances of the tendency to believe with more certainty than is warranted what we want to believe can be readily found all about us in public and private life.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

The Abortion Pill and Original Sin

Recent reports indicate there may be a danger of a fatal infection after taking the abortion pill. The question has not been settled scientifically yet, but advance reactions were almost as predictable as the rising of the sun in the East. This from the New York Times, November 23, 2005:

"Wendy Wright, executive vice president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group, said that the latest news about deaths involving Mifeprex proved that the drug was unsafe. Ms. Wright also speculated that more women were dying after using the drug but that their deaths were going unreported.
. . .
Dr. Scott J. Spear, chairman of the national medical committee of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation's largest provider of abortions, said there was no evidence that the vaginal administration of misoprostol increased the risks of bacterial infections."

Hmmmmmm. An anti-abortion group thinks that the uncertain, tentative, problematic report proves that the abortion pill is unsafe, while a group that thinks abortion is a moral option for women is sure that it is safe.

What shall we make of this? Nothing contributes to understanding more than the doctrine of original sin. Here it means that individuals and groups tend to favor interpretations favorable to their own ideology or self-interests.

Note that the doctrine of OS applies to everybody, everybody. These are not evil people. They are people who believe their cause is right and good. Yet both leap on an uncertainty, an unsettled question, with certain conclusions supportive of their beliefs.

What is so clearly illustrated here could be demonstrated in a thousand cases where uncertainties become certainties favorable to interests and outlooks.

So next time you confront conflicting interpretations of this sort, remember the old doctrine of original sin. Hardly anything is more helpful in providing understanding of current events, and it is the easiest of all religious doctrines to practice.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Conspiracies in the Bush Administration

Allegations of conspiracy abound. A few of them are real. A major one that no one talks about is the conspiracy of politicians and the people against good policy and common sense.

People want greater benefits and lower taxes for themselves. Politicians want to get elected. How do you get elected? By telling people what they want to hear and giving them what they want. It is a marvelous arrangement.

So we get lower taxes, especially for the rich, who can unduly influence the Congress. They especially get what they want, often to the detriment of those who have only votes to pay for their goodies. The rich more than make up in dollars what they lack in ballot power.

What we don't get is good energy policy because the people want low gas prices, and the corporations want profits from making big cars, selling gas, and building highways.The politicians want votes from the people and dollars from the corporations.

What we don't get is a reasonable tax on gas, with credits for lower income folks, that would have multiple benefits -- better fuel efficiency, funds for seeking alternative energy sources, reducing our dependence on foreign oil and degradation of the environment, money for other good purposes like health care for all, and so on.

We get bridges to nowhere along with all the other pork our good legislatures arrange by playing "you vote for mine and I'll vote for yours."

We also have sub-conspiracies of the rich and the politicians against the rest of us. So we get bad, terribly confusing Medicare coverage for drugs with subsidies for drug companies.

What we get is 45 million people without health insurance because the insurance and drug companies have sufficient influence to prevent the enactment of universal health insurance that would be much more efficient and get good care for who can't afford to pay now.

What we get is a powerful effort to get rid of the estate tax that significantly affects only the very rich.

How can this sub-conspiracy flourish when it benefits the few and hurts the many? It works because while the rich and the politicians are screwing the rest of us, enough conservative values voters among us are willing to subordinate their economic interests to their reactionary moral and cultural attitudes that many of the rich are more or less indifferent to in order to get more rich. Religious and other conservative values voters are so fearful that the culture they cherished is passing away that they are willing for the rich to fleece the masses of us in return for votes supporting traditional (recent past) ways of life.

But since benefits without taxes to support them won't work in the long run, how do the politicians get by with it? They do it by reducing or withholding benefits to the poor and putting the rest on a charge card for later generations to pay.

But isn't this too simple a picture of the political situation? Of course it is, but is there not enough truth in this oversimplification of a complex situation worth taking notice of? You bet.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Children of Divorce Wars: The Academic Debate

Recently a spate of book has engaged the question: Is divorce good for children? One side says, while some kids turn out badly, on the whole children of divorced parents do pretty well. Divorce is painful at the time for children, but in the long run does not harm most. There is such a thing as the "good divorce."

The other side says, while a few may remain unscathed, for the most part, children of parents who divorce do worse than kids from intact families in numerous ways. There is no such thing as the "good divorce."

It is more complicated than this for both positions, of course, but you get the picture. My thesis here is that you don't need to read these books to get their general drift -- if you have one piece of information about the authors. You need to know their general ideological orientation. I will call them for working purposes in this situation conservative and liberal.

Conservatives value tradition and the norms they represent. Things turn out better when people live in accordance with the institutional patterns given to us from the past, usually the more recent past, since all agree that some older traditions are bad, slavery, e. g. To put it differently, they give priority to structure and are skeptical of the capacity of freedom to create new patterns and practices that will work as well.

Conservatives and their sponsoring think tanks prefer studies that show children of divorce do badly. Moreover, the studies they do will pretty well confirm their preferences.

Liberals don't dismiss tradition outright but find enough wrong with it sometimes to justify a search for new patterns and practices that may be better. Traditional marriage, e. g., was male dominated, authoritarian, and put women in a subservient role. Put otherwise, they emphasize the capacity of human freedom and creativity to elaborate novel institutional arrangements that can be better for all.

Liberals therefore prefer studies that stress the possibility of the good divorce for the adults and the children. While a happy intact marriage is the best, divorce can be more or less harmless in the long run for children, their welfare, and life prospects. Studies done by them and their liberal sponsors will tend to support these preferences.

So don't bother to read all the books. Just try to find out whether the authors are conservatives or liberals in the sense defined, and you will know in advance in good measure where they will come out on the question of the long term effects of divorce on children.

Extremists and radicals at the far right and far left of the specturm just take these contrasting tendencies much further.

No dishonesty is imputed to anyone. With full integrity and good intentions all around, it just works out that way. There is so much variation in individual cases, so many ways to create and use methodologies, so much complexity in the data, so many ways of interpreting the bare facts that competent, reasonable people can come out at different places, each with a claim to truth.

But if you want to undertake all the reading, here is an annotated bibliography representing all sides on the issue prepared by a conservative institution whose preferences are evident in the short descriptions of each book:

The most interesting question for me in all this is how people come to have a particular ideology in the first place and how continuing experience and confrontation with fresh facts modify their stance. How do interpretive patterns and empirical data interact over time? How does individual temperament enter in relation to tendencies to persist in present beliefs versus openness to change? How do deep-rooted bias and commitment truth even if it requires a change of mind interact? These are questions of deep importance and not often enough pursued in cases like this.

Somebody once said that theologians should be forced to publish an intellectual autobiography alongside their books and articles. The same holds for people who write books on marriage and divorce. How did their life history, especially in childhood, and adult personal experience shape their outlook? These may be crucial factors, and yet they are generally ignored. Pursuit of them might even lead to understanding and to reduction of differences in interpretation. But, heck, a fight is much more exciting.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

We Need Universal Health Care: A One-Payer System

Data released today by the Census Bureau show that the number of uninsured Americans stood at 45.8 million in 2004, an increase of 800,000 people over the number uninsured in 2003 (45.0 million). The number of uninsured Americans was at an all-time high in 2004.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

The aims of a good health care system can be easily stated. We want the best care we can afford efficiently delivered in a system that covers everyone and allows as much freedom of choice for doctors and patients as possible.

Dependence on the free market works fine for those who have enough money to afford it but is disastrous for the poor. The notion that supply and demand will guarantee efficiency, high quality, and low cost while maximizing freedom has fundamental flaws.

We need to go further away from a market system not toward it. No alternative is perfect, but we can do much better than we are doing now. I urge a one-payer system something like that now found in Canada and that is approved overwhelmingly both by Canadian citizens and doctors. The plan would be paid for by progressive taxation that would secure a level of quality care that was as high as possible given all our other social goals and values.

Some compromise would have be made between medical needs and expanding costs in relation to the availability of resources that always remain finite even in a rich country. This is not socialized medicine in which medical professions are paid by the government but socialized insurance. The advantages are:

1. It would be universal. It covers everyone regardless of income, pre-existing conditions, or employment status.

2. It would be comprehensive. It includes treatment by doctors and hospitals for all necessary medical services including prescription drugs, mental health, dental problems, and long-term nursing home care.

3. It would be efficient. Enormous savings would result in the reduction of administrative costs by having one uniform system of accounting. Because of the volume involved, the government as sole administrator could put constraints on costs of supplies and services. Money that now goes into investor profits could be used to treat sick people.

4. It would produce outcomes on the whole that are better than we get with the present system. The Canadian system supports this claim, although cross-country comparisons are hazardous.

5. It would preserve a great deal of freedom for doctors and patients. Patients could choose their own doctors and hospitals. Doctors could prescribe tests, treatments, and drugs with no greater constraints than now operate through HMOs, other insurance plans, and the ability of the patient to pay.

A universal health plan would, of course, not be free from problems, complications, and frustrations. Upward cost pressures will occur as they do now due to the creation of new and expensive drugs and technologies, the rising demand for them, and the increasing number of the elderly. We could expect fraud, abuse, and waste but not necessarily any more than we already have, except for the fact that some people seem to delight especially in cheating the government. Bureaucratic procedures and decisions would drive us nuts as they do now with HMO’s and other insurance plans. Some restriction of services would be necessary, but we have rationing at the present based on income. Limitations in the one-payer system ideally would be based on rational considerations relating to cost constraints that would not discriminate against the poor.

(This material is taken from my book, The Ethics of Belief (Lima: CSS Publishing Co., 2001), vol. 2, 119-24. )

Monday, October 31, 2005

Sam Alito: Will Bring Out the Battering Ram

First impressions of nominee Sam,
He ain't worth a federal damn.
Democrats will pitch a fit.
Wanted a moderate, but Sam's not it.
Time to bring out the battering ram.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rove, DeLay, Bush: More Limericks for Today

Let there be no DeLay_

With his great power,
He built a great tower.
Now at last he's been arrested,
Now at last he will be bested.
The tower is crumbling by the hour.

He used his power, so they say,
To crush opponents who got in his way.
But now the jerk has been indicted.
Cosmic justice is much delighted.
The country will get better without DeLay

The Republican party is falling apart.
Warms the cockles of my Democrat heart.
Soon the worst will all be jailed.
The rest have miserably, constantly failed.
2008 we make a new start.

The Republican Party is all debacles.
Warms the heart of my Democrat cockles.
Let us toss them on their tails.
Send the worst to distant jails.
Only for money or power do they have ogles.

From your Roving Reporter:

Round-faced Karl in a business suit,
With a political brain that is mighty acute.
Without scruples he does his work
Of enhancing the power of a presidential jerk.
Hold on, it is about to go kaput.

A Little Devil Unbound

Since a Rove named Karl blew into town,
He's tried to bring his enemies down.
With scurrilous, nefarious, unfair attacks,
And skillful stabs in their unsuspecting backs,
He's earned his infamy in the world of renown.

Limerick inspired by a dam crisis:
News item: Dam may break in Taunton, Mass.

There was a young woman from Taunton,
whose mores she was always flauntin.'
She committed lascivious sin with 86 men.
The broad was thoroughly wanton.

OK, OK, I wrote it. I couldn't resist when I heard the name of Taunton.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Football: Things that Don't Matter Much

A team has won two championships and may win again. The clever sportswriters will inevitably ask what? Of course, Will we see a "threepeat" here? OK the first time it was clever, even cute. A few more times were tolerable. But enough already! After the 10,000th repetition it wears thin, yea, becomes obnoxious, barbaric. Testifies to a limited imagination in the authors.

I once heard a pro football player say that if you are not in the Super Bowl, all the rest is nothing. Nothing? Does he realize what he is saying? If all the other games amount to nothing, then the Super Bowl amounts to nothing, since no matter how many times you multiply nothing, it is still nothing, zero, zilch. What is the Super Bowl anyway? No matter how you cut it, it is one more football game, although in some respects more significant for some people than others. Often it is not even a good football game. Even with a "threepeat," winning the Super Bowl is finally winning one more football game.

Some sports commentators think it is a crying shame approaching a national, even cosmic, tragedy that we don't have a playoff to determine the national collegiate champion in Division 1A football This logic is as faulty as the sentiment that all other games mean nothing, the Super Bowl is everything. OK, I like the NCAA tournament in 1A college basketball, but football is different. You play one game a week making the logistics of having a meaningful playoff formidable indeed without extending the season until Easter. I hesitate to introduce this notion when speaking of football, but colleges are, after all, gasp, educational institutions. But leaving all that aside, suppose we just forget about who is number one after the regular season ends and just have the bowl games for the entertainment they are and leave it at that. Would the sun cease rising, the oceans vanish, the laws of physics fail, or the common life of human beings eating, sleeping, dying, laughing, crying, getting in wars come to an end? No, life would go on. This is one alleged tragedy that is all in the heads of those who think so. So get over it!

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Wedding Announcements as Social Commentary

Engagement announcements are an interesting sociological study. They convey a great deal more information than the details about the event itself and the participants. My interest here is in the relationship of religion to class, Each gives a clue to the other,

For example, if the bride, according to the announcement in The New York Times, is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence and is the daughter of the chief surgeon at a prestigious hospital and the groom is a graduate of Princeton and both his parents are lawyers in one of the biggest law firms in the East, then it is not likely that the happy couple observed their nuptial ceremony in the Independent Bible-Believing Gospel Tabernacle. If the article appears in a small Southern town paper and the bridge and groom of graduates of the local high school and if she works at Wal-Mart and he drives a bread truck, one would not be surprised to learn that they are to be married in an Assembly of God or Congregational Holiness church.

You get the idea. Folks in the upper middle class and highly educated in elite schools might well say their vows in an Episcopal or Presbyterian church if they are Protestants, although it would not be shocking to see them identified as Unitarians.

Middle class people are well distributed in the main line Protestant denominations, but if they are in the lower half, they might well be Baptists or Methodists. In the South, however, where there are more Baptists than people, you will find all classes represented in the many churches large and small that occupy much real estate in the states of the old Confederacy. Affluent couples from rich families wouldn't be out of place at a well-groomed large Baptist church in the nearer suburbs, say Buckhead, if they are in the Atlanta region.

I will not belabor the point. It is elementary sociology of religion first imprinted in my mind by H. Richard Niebuhr's The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Just don't let anyone tell you that the denominations are to be distinguished only or primarily by their doctrinal differences. You can learn a lot by reading wedding announcements.

The Hubris of Imperialistic Science

Topic: Religion and Science
The Intelligent Design project is not science as defined by the scientific community -- the best working definition we can provide. Therefore, it should not be part of the curriculum of science. But that is not the only hazard we face in schools and in the culture generally. In our midst is also an intellectual imperialism that is a form of naturalistic or even materialistic metaphysics masquerading as science.

It has at least two parts. The first is the implication or explicit claim that taking science seriously means rejecting belief in God. Examples are this fallacy are Steven Weinberg, Carl Sagan, and Richard Dawkins. The assumption is that science gives us a full explanation of things that makes rational belief in God unnecessary (weak form) or impossible (strong form). Belief in another dimension of reality violates Occam's law that forbids us to multiply entities beyond necessity.

Naively, some think that affirming God as the creator of nature only raises a further question from children's Sunday School classes, i. e., who created God. Why not just stop with nature, they say. This simplistic solution ignores the fact that all thought must finally reach a point of ultimacy beyond which it cannot go that must be accepted as a given. It is the final level of reality that cannot be accounted for by anything more ultimate but which is the explanation of everything else.

It may be that nature is the point at which we should stop and simply assume its laws and its constituents and proceed to interpret the particulars of nature in that light. But -- and here is the essential point -- the determination of whether that is the case is a philosophical issue, not a scientific one. It must be argued for on philosophical grounds. Science as science cannot settle it. Some of us believe that thought is best served by reference to a dimension of reality that transcends nature although it is manifest in nature.

Intelligent Design is not science. It is metaphysics. Atheism presented as the necessary or possible implication of science is not science either. It is metaphysics. Neither should be in a science curriculum or presented in any form as just truth and not philosophical opinion.

Some scientific atheists, including Richard Dawkins, offer a second fallacy in the name of science that deserves to be identified and rejected. It is Darwinian evolution not only as an account of the origin of species but as the clue to human psychology and culture. It assumes that the ruling power in nature and culture is natural selection that leads to the survival of the fittest. Fittest is defined tautologically as that which survives, i. e. has success in reproducing itself!

This principle holds whether we are talking about a plant or animal species, a form of behavior in human beings, or an idea or value in culture. Natural selection becomes imperialistic when it is extended by its proponents beyond plants and animals into the human realm of psychology, behavior, and culture as a unquestioned verity of science.

At the root of it all is the gene. Speaking metaphorically, genes want replicas of themselves to be spread as widely as possible. We can speak of "the selfish gene" (Dawkins, 1976). An organism is the gene's way of making another gene -- to adapt the old adage that the chicken is just an egg's way of producing another egg. Human beings behave and adopt ideas and values, and some get reproduced over generations and some don't. Success is whatever survives over time, i. e., gets more cultural genes into the population so they will continue. Variations in what people think and do lead either to failure or success depending on whether they succeed better than others in passing their biological, behavioral or cultural "genes" on to subsequent generations. Sociobiology (E. O. Wilson, 1975) and later evolutionary psychology emerged to show how principles that explain natural selection in nature are also exemplified in human behavior and in culture. Traits are valuable to the extent they ensure reproductive success whether in nature or history.

The problem here is that the extension of Darwinian principles beyond their original use into psychology and other disciplines introduces philosophical assumptions that are not derived as such from scientific investigation. The central question is: What is a human being? The Darwinians speak boldly about human beings by naively extending biological principles without sufficient questioning their relevance beyond their original use. I have seen TV programs explaining human behavior in Darwinian terms that assume what they present is true without any doubt. It is just what science teaches us. When someone defines the mind as a complex machine or as a computing device, we should be put on guard that an assumption has been surreptitiously slipped into the discussion that is not necessarily warranted by science itself.

That human beings are biological creatures and that genetic makeup affects mental as as well as physical aspects of our makeup is certainly the case. The question is whether we have the capacity to transcend nature as self-conscious rational beings. Some of us believe there is a dimension of spirit that must be taken into account. In any case, the conversation about who we are and why we do what we do requires a conversation on many levels among biologists, psychologists, sociologists, philosophers, theologians, and others that makes science a contributor but not a hegemonic Queen to whom all disciplines must give obsequious obedience.

When these questionable philosophies creep into the classroom or elsewhere uncritically as just plain scientific truth, an offense is created that is as misleading and dangerous as Intelligent Design parading as science

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Hermeneutics of Superstition: the Epistemic Implications of Original Sin

With apologies to Paul Ricoeuer and "the hermeneutics of suspicion," I give you the hermeneutics of superstition (HOS). It is part of the doctrine of original sin. It refers to the tendency of individuals and organizations to prefer interpretations that best fit the ideology and self-interests they bring to the consideration of any issue, especially new ones.

Some examples will make the concept clear. It is not surprising the tobacco companies resisted the causal connection between smoking and lung cancer as long as they possibly could find scientists or use the lap dog scientists on their payroll to refute the notion. Only a few years ago a row of them to a person expressed to Congress the view that cigarette smoking is not addictive. Why? An ideology that served their monetary interests was at stake. In such instances, the hermeneutics of superstition raises its ugly head.

Is global warming taking place, and is it in part due to human activity? If you have an organization entranced by the wonders of the free market and is supported by businesses and individuals dedicated to that ideology, it will likely prefer to believe that recent global warming is a part of long-term natural cycles and that human activity plays a minimal role. This is the idea President Bush also supports.

Was racism involved in the treatment of poor blacks after Katrina? You can supply names and organizations as well as I that were absolutely sure there was. Conservatives thought the idea was ridiculous. Good evidence was in short supply from both sides.

Is it safe to import prescription drugs from other countries to make them cheaper? Pharmaceutical companies are sure it is not. Consumer groups insist that it is or can be made to be. Do Pharmaceutical companies need to charge high prices for new drugs to recoup their research costs? Of course we do, say they. Of course not, say the critics, since the government pays for for much of the basic research and the amount spent on marketing costs and cultivating the good will of physicians with lavish goodies is inordinate and inexcusable.

How doe we account for this? Why the hermeneutics of superstition, of course. We could make this list as long as we wanted to. Just take any new issue and proponents and opponents will find that the evidence fits their preconceived outlook on life and/or is beneficial to their own interests.

Will tax cuts to the wealthy benefit the economy? Of course, say conservatives. There is a better way to do it say the liberals that does not inordinately gift the already filthy rich with even more wealth. The hermeneutics of superstition is like the universal solvent that will dissolve anything, but, unfortunately, there was nowhere to put it. The HOS is universally relevant (or almost so), but there is a place to put it -- in our minds where we use it to be skeptical of all points of view, including our own.

Overcoming this obstacle to truth requires eternal vigilance, agnosticism about what fits the natural predilections of proponents, and hard-headed insistence upon clear and convincing evidence to counteract the seductive appeal of HOS. We need especially to be critical of ourselves, since, like original sin, it corrupts everybody.

By the way, the HOS also applies to thought about religion and morals. I have said this so well in other writings that I need only repeat it here. As I once wrote:

"The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski set forth the Law of the Infinite Cornucopia, which notes that no shortage exists of reasons to bolster whatever theory anyone wants to believe. I suggest a theological version that I will call the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability. This law states that the Bible can be interpreted so as to make it compatible with nearly every conceivable doctrine. The greatest proof of the operation of this Law is that irreconcilable positions on nearly every theological and ethical question are extant, all of which claim to have the sanction of Scripture. The sublime form of the Law indicates that reasons can always be given to demonstrate that Jesus himself would have approved of the conclusions reached by a given individual or community. When the Law of Infinite Hermeneutical Adaptability is in operation, it is nearly always accompanied by the Phenomenon of Total Surprise. I prefer the description of this Phenomenon in its "Lo and Behold" form: When individuals and groups find the Word of God in the Bible, the results, lo and behold, turn out to be identical with what they themselves believe"!
(From myToward a New Modernism, p. 31,1997)

Want an illustration? What does the Bible teach about homosexuality? Tell me the theological point of view of the interpreter, and I will tell you in advance what they will conclude after examining the evidence. There are, of course, renegade modernists like myself who say it doesn't matter what specific passages say. The question is whether same-sex love is healthy and beneficial to all concerned. See the dictum of Paul in Romans and I Corinthians : Love is the fulfilling of the law, the whole of the law. Moreover, all things are permitted but not everything is healthy and beneficial, but we should not be enslaved to anything. I add that that enslavement includes bondage to our own point of view that we bring to scriptural exegesis.


Thursday, September 22, 2005

Katrina and Racism

John One-Note Leo, cultural critic for US News and World Report, is usually from about one-third to one-half right. He has only one theme which he belabors every week ad nauseam -- the excesses of cultural liberalism. In one of his recent diatribes he took aim at observers who found blatant racism in the government response to Katrina. He quoted some of the usual suspects who find racism everywhere and who love to be in front of microphones and cameras. Leo attempts to refute the charge with some success since some liberals make themselves such an easy target. We will grant him the usual partial grasp of the whole truth that we can usually find in his columns.

I tried to be hard-headed on these matters and to remain skeptical of everything until I am persuaded by what I can find out based on evidence and critical analysis. The catastrophe was so massive with so many levels of government involved offering so much opportunity for bureaucratic bungling, ineptitude, squabbling, and turf wars, and with so much complexity involved in a quick mobilizing of rescue efforts that much of the delay and ineffectiveness can be found somewhere in this vicinity. In these tangled, complicated matters most anything you say will be partly true. The whole truth and nothing but the truth is hard to come by, especially when emotion and ideology cloud perceptions. Class issues were certainly front and center, since those who did most of the suffering were poor. Either they could not afford to evacuate or lived in the most vulnerable areas.

Was there also racism that was conspicuous, overt, and deliberate? If so, the evidence needs to be presented, and maybe it will be forthcoming in time. In any case, the catastrophe unveiled in a vivid way ugly facts of race and class that have produced outrageous poverty in this rich land that prides itself on its virtue. These inequalities are a disgrace and a scandal for which we, beginning with the President, should be ashamed and say so right out loud. It is not that solutions are lacking. The political and moral will is not there. Maybe this will be a nudge in the direction of creating an outraged conscience that will result in effective change, but the pessimist in me doubts it.

FEMA has been accused of being derelict in its duty in past disasters.
Charles Perrow wrote this about previous instances of bungling by FEMA:

Hurricane Hugo in 1989 prompted US Senator Fritz Hollings to declare that FEMA was "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known." (1024) The next year when disasters hit California, Representative Norman Y. Mineta of California, declared that FEMA "could screw up a two car parade." When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 the primitive communications system of the agency forced it to buy Radio Shack walkie-talkies in last minute preparations, while the state of the art one FEMA had paid for remained unavailable.

After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, help was slow in coming as well as inept and the victims were mostly white. No criticism of FEMA in New Orleans exceeds the ferocity of the wrath directed toward it after that catastrophe.

On the other hand, evidence is not lacking that in 1992 and in other situations racism was clearly present. A friend of mine who was close to some of them gives his own personal testimony:

During my time with the NCC (National Council of Churches) as an Associate Director for Public Policy, and before that with the Progressive National Baptists, I was heavily involved with what's call "Environmental Racism" throughout the country, particularly in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" which is a 90 or so mile strip loaded with carcinogens running from the capital to New Orleans. And a guess what group suffered the most?

We worked with the a host of groups and witnessed firsthand the abject, grinding poverty in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, particularly the latter city.

I was also working as a disaster relief coordinator, raising funds and distributing services after hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, and the Oklahoma City bombing, and floods in Louisiana. In each of those cases there was conspicuous, systematic disregard for Black citizens. For example, after Hugo, Charleston, S.C., recovered really quickly;. McCullough County next door has permanently dislocated African Americans. Hugo was in '89.

Let's face it, Ken, Black citizens are still reeling from the effects of the post-Civil War era for which we've never recovered, e.g., poverty and control and institutionalized disregard for minority social well-being, etc.
The larger truth that Leo totally missed or ignored has to do with the historical and cultural background to the fact that large numbers of the suffering victims of Katrina were poor and mostly black. If by the racism in the situation we mean that federal officials took note of the fact that most of the misery following Katrina was being experienced by black folks and thought, "Heck, we can take our time here; they are black and don't vote for Republicans anyway," we need to see the specific evidence. If by racism we mean the long and sorry history by which African Americans have been discriminated against, ignored, and left in poverty over many decades, yes, the charge is valid.

Don't count of John Leo to make a major point of that. It is too easy to blast excessive charges of racism and hit the mark on the surface while hiding a far more important truth that only more careful analysis can uncover.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bush -- Always Bad and Getting Worse

The current Bush Administration is the worst I have known in my 75 years upon this earth. The list of blunders and deceit is long, but a few clues can unlock the secret to the whole debacle.

In foreign policy the key is hubris compounded of exaggerated confidence in military power and the ability to remake the world in our own image. It is the old imperialism with a sugar coating of idealism. If we -- the innocent and virtuous nation-- conquer the bad guys while beckoning the liberated citizens to embrace freedom and democracy American style, a new world order will emerge. That is the neoconservative creed that the President has adopted. Iraq is failure exhibit number one, demonstrating both the limitations of power against a stubborn insurgency and the difficulties of imposing democratic principles on a land torn by deep religious and ethnic rivalries lacking the organic historical and cultural preconditions for either unity or democracy. Of course, if some semblance of democracy should arise inimical to our interests, we would have to find ways to undermine it. Uppermost in our strategy, of course, is maintaining access to Iraqi oil.

Bush got us into the Iraq war by a combination of ignorance, incompetence, and deceit, all under the guise of removing the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against us by Saddam Hussein, an evil man. When that pretense proved false, the rationale kept changing with the situation until it was reduced to the principle that the world would be better of without Saddam, I. e., he is not a nice person. Now we have a tiger by the tail. Victory and the promise of democracy in Iraq have proven to be elusive. Neither the "cut and run" nor the "stay the course" are promising. So there we are with the costs in American and Iraqi lives as well as money mounting daily with no good way out. A majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake to begin with. Where were they last November, when we had a chance to get rid of the instigator of this disaster?

At home we are ruled by a combination of plutocracy and a retrogressive cultural agenda. Underlying all this is a religiously-flavored rhetorical compassion for the masses that gets combined with actual policies designed to put as much power and wealth in the hands of corporations and the already rich as possible. The means are slick political maneuvering, ruthless use of power, and subtle deceit. Middle and upper class economic conservatives either approve or grudgingly tolerate the agenda of the religious right wing, while lower income cultural and religious conservatives either approve or grudgingly tolerate economic policies contrary not only to justice but to their own self-interest. Bush has exploited the conflict between the economic interests and the cultural values of modestly well-off and poor Protestant evangelicals and Catholic conservatives so skillfully with a mantle of religion and traditional morality that they scarcely realize they are being robbed for the sake of giant corporations and the wealthy.

A look at the policies, appointment, legislative proposals, and executive actions of the President at home and abroad will illustrate a consistent motivation: the desire to promote the interests of the rich and powerful combined with retrograde cultural values. This holds whether we examine medical policy (favorable to the pharmaceutical industry), sex-education and the fight against AIDS (no condoms, abstinence only), environmental policy (favorable to polluters and big corporations), energy policy (more production to boost oil company profits, no legislation to require energy efficient cars), labor policy (against unions and for low wages), tax policy (immense rewards for the rich) -- just to begin a list.

Fortunately, with Katrina and Rita as the capstones, majorities of Americans are saying no to Bush. It is tragic that enough voters were deceived in 2000 and 2004 to let this menace to justice and peace seize the reigns of power and inaugurate the catastrophe that has unfolded before us.

For two recent examples of the Bush follies, see:

For my web site, see:

Monday, September 05, 2005

Religion and Politics Again

"The issue for both sides is not so much what Roberts believes is right or wrong. Rather, it is the degree to which he believes religious morality may be permitted to influence public policy." The Washington Post, September 5, 2005. Here we go again -- confusion about religion and politics in relation to separation of church and state. The quote concerns the likely questioning of John Roberts in his confirmation hearings to be a justice and now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. If John Roberts believes as a Catholic that abortion is wrong, that is fine. But as public policy he must support that view on the basis of the laws, traditions, and values of American history and culture, especially those enshrined in its founding documents. This means that while it is perfectly legitimate to espouse values that are rooted in religion, in terms of law and public policy he must articulate those values in the language common to all Americans.

The most profound understanding of the relation of religion and politics I know of -- except, of course in my own writings! -- is found in a speech by Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York in an address at the University of Notre Dame September 13, 1984. He was dealing with the question as to whether he as a Catholic was bound to adopt a position against abortion in accordance with the teachings of the church. His answer was that he was not necessarily bound to do so. Here is what he says:

"Our public morality, then, -- the moral standards we maintain for everyone, not just the ones we insist on in our private lives-- depends on a consensus view of right and wrong. The values derived from religious belief will not --and should not -- be accepted as part of the public morality unless they are shared by the pluralistic community at large, by consensus. That those values happen to be religious values does not deny them acceptability as a part of this consensus. But it does not require their acceptability, either. . . . the question whether to engage the political system in a struggle to have it adopt certain articles of our belief as part of public morality is not a matter of doctrine: it is a matter of prudential political judgment.

Yes, we create our public morality through consensus and in this country that consensus reflects to some extent religious values of a great majority of Americans. But. no, all religiously based values don't have an a priori place in our public morality. The community must decide if what is being proposed would be better left to private discretion than public policy; whether it restricts freedom, and if so to what end, to whose benefit; whether it will produce a good or bad result; whether overall it will help the community or merely divide it."

I could not have said it better myself. However, I would stress that any prevailing consensus of values among the American people itself must finally be judged by the founding documents, especially the Constitution.

1. Cuomo clearly recognizes that church and state is not the same problem as religion and politics.

2. He recognizes that religiously-based values have a legitimate place in public political discourse, but they have no privileged status since we have to find a moral consensus in a pluralistic society that includes a variety of religious belief and unbelief.

3. Political policies must be judged by whether they are best for the society as a whole, whether they promote peace, justice, freedom, and equality for all, not by whether they have religious sanction in some specific religion or denomination.

4. Christians as citizens and as public officials have to make an attempt to balance the moral truths they hold against political realities. Pragmatic judgments must be made which may require a compromise of the personal morality they espouse as persons of faith.

If a person running for office believes, e. g., that abortion is wrong because the Bible of the church says so, it is perfectly legitimate for her or him to try to persuade other Americans to oppose abortion. However, --and here is the crucial point -- the persuasion must, or should be, be in terms of values, principles, and beliefs embodied in the secular history of the country, not because the Bible or the Church says so. Religiously-based values should be translated into the language of American history in terms of whether it will further the common good. Appeal to the Bible or the Pope as such is not valid or pragmatically advisable. The Bible and the Pope as such are not authoritative for American political philosophy. If there is a correspondence between what the Bible and the Pope teach, on the one hand, and the laws, traditions, culture, the Constitution, and a consensus of Americans in general based on whatever authorities they follow,on the other hand, fine. But the support in the public realm must be based on the latter not on the former. And a consensus of contemporary values must finally be tested by the Constitution. Segregation was supported -- by some on allegedly religious grounds -- by large numbers of people in 1950, but the Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

In short, it doesn't matter what a political proposal is based on, whether the Bible, the Koran, Hindu or Buddhist sources, or an atheistic moral philosophy. The only thing that matters is whether it is acceptable to a majority of voting citizens and can pass the Constitutional test as judged by the courts. Clear thinking may get lost in the heat of battle and succumb to slogans, deep-rooted religious or secular bias, or false premises that ignore vital distinctions. Let us hope, however, that we can at least avoid simplistic generalizations that say we should adopt a policy because the Bible or the Pope or the Koran supports it or reject it for the same reason.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Intelligent Design and Darwinian Evolution

Should Intelligent Design be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in science classes? The issue will finally likely be settled not on philosophical or educational grounds but politically by local school boards, state legislatures, and Congress and then tested in the courts. Cliches, slogans, half-truths, misunderstandings, and a general shallowness will rule the day, generating more heat than light. Nevertheless, an analysis to sort out the issues is worth the attempt.

Many arguments for Intelligent Design that I have seen rely heavily on statistical analyses of probability rather than on detailed empirical refutations of the specifics of Darwinian theory, although this can be found too. The general notion is that random mutation and natural selection cannot account for the "irreducible" (Michael Behe) or "specific" (William Demski) complexity seen in organisms. The chance, for example, that Darwinian mechanisms can explain the marvelous complexity of the eye are such that this infinitesimal possibility cannot be rationally entertained. From the design seen in living things, we can infer an Intelligent Designer. This is the best explanation of what we actually find in organisms and their organs. The theory is objective, rational, based on observation, and is, in fact, scientific, proponents insist.

For a brief introduction see:

The Darwinists are quick to offer refutations, contending that given the billions of years involved, it is possible to show how minute random mutations could be organized incrementally over time to produce the complexity illustrated in the eye. Likewise, biologists already have elaborated in detail how the intricate processes that produced organisms as a whole can come about along with all the checks, balances, and bio-feedback mechanisms needed to keep them functioning properly . Moreover, Intelligent Design theory yields no empirically testable hypotheses by the usual and ordinary methods of science. Also, not all features seem "intelligent." The retina is backward, necessitating a hole in the back for the transmitting nerves to get through on their way to the brain. The result is the "blind spot." I would also like to know how Katrina qualifies as intelligent if the Designer is also thought to be good.

It interests me that both the Intelligent Design theorists and Darwinians who refute them seem to think of purpose and design in engineering terms. An intelligent agent decides to makes something and figures out how to do it so that the resulting product works. Parts are created and coordinated so that they cooperate in producing the desired ends. In this way they embody the the purposes built in by the designer. This is then applied to the world as a whole resulting in a view of God as the Cosmic Designer, an external, supernatural Agent. I will suggest that a biological rather than a technological model is superior both to the intelligent design scheme or to the biblical political model of God as Creator-King.

The prototype of the intelligent design God can be found in the 18th century philosopher William Paley. He maintains that if you found a watch lying in the sand, you would conclude that the intricate and interworking parts required a clever creator who build the mechanism for a purpose. A watch requires a watchmaker. Likewise, the world with its complex and cooperating parts and laws requires a World Maker, i. e., an Intelligent Designer we commonly call God. David Hume, of course, offered at the time a devastating critique.

Contemporary Intelligent Design proponents think Paley was right, and the strict Darwinists think this is nonsense. Science can account for everything in worldly terms without reference to a Supernatural External Agent, for whom there is no evidence or necessity. More recently the mathematicians have provided new versions of Intelligent Design using theories of probability to show the absurdity of a process operating by law and chance alone producing the complexity we see in organisms, organs,and cells. Lecomte du Nouy, Human Destiny, 1947, is a classic example..

My conclusion is that Intelligent Design is right in seeing purpose in the process but wrong about how it works. The Darwinians are right in suggesting that they can account for the apparent purpose and amazing complexity exhibited by organisms within a scientific framework but wrong in thinking that science tells us the the whole truth about the matter. Science provides a perspective on the objects it studies but within the limits of what can be known by its methods. Hence, it gives us partial but essential knowledge of the evolutionary process. It abstracts from the concrete whole of entities what its observations can discern. This means we need a more comprehensive outlook that specifies what the concrete whole is from which science abstracts what yields itself to its methods. I argue this in the immediately preceding blog and will not repeat it here.

I am convinced by a form of Whiteheadian panpsychism in which the disastrous separation of body and mind in modern science and philosophy is overcome and replaced by a notion of organisms as unitary beings with both physical (body) and mental capacities (mind). The internal mental (but mainly not consciousness) processes operate. at every level of nature from subatomic particles to human beings. Purpose is to be found, therefore, in all nature in ways commensurate with the complexity of the subjects involved. Chance and law are involved in the efforts of primitive organisms at the simplest levels all the way up to human beings in the effort to "live, to live well, and to live better" (Whitehead). The world is made up its entirety of "experiencing subjects" whose internal mental operations exhibit purpose.

Science can discern only that part of the whole that its methods permit and that excludes perception of the internal purposes of these living subjects. Life is the primary philosophical category and is found at every level of nature, and life processes everywhere exhibit purpose guided by an internal mentality that is pervasive. (Note: rocks, computers, oceans, and planets, etc. as such are not subjects but pure objects composed of smaller life-like, purposive subjects. Life may in a narroweer sense be resricted to organisms that require food.) At the base of it all is God -- the All-Inclusive Life whose purposes are universally exhibited throughout the universe. This Universal Life is not omnipotent but limited in power and works in all things persuasively and by law to create life and to increase the enjoyment of life.

I entertain belief in a God unlike the External Designer of the Intelligent Design school but not permitted among atheistic scientists who find no evidence for the traditional God within or beyond science (Steven Weinberg, Richard Dawkins, and Carl Sagan, e. g.). This fragmentary introduction will have to suffice here but is elaborated in my books and in articles on my website.

Should Intelligent Design be taught in public schools as a scientific alternative to Darwinism. No, because its credentials as science are too minimal to qualify. Science is what the community of scientists currently believe. Today the consensus in favor of Darwinian theory in its main outlines is overwhelming. Only a tiny population of credentialed scientists at the fringe think otherwise. But what is wrong in simply acknowledging briefly in science classes that a large number of Americans do not accept Darwinian reductionism and prefer alternatives, including creationism and Intelligent Design theory, that are outside the current understanding of the biological sciences, except for a small number of dissenters too insignificant to be taken seriously within science itself? The purpose of the public schools is not only to teach contemporary scientific understandings but also to introduce students to their culture. It may be sad, even tragic, but evolutionary theory is held in bad odor by numbers approaching if not exceeding a majority of citizens. A majority want Darwinian alternatives recognized and taught as well. Those numbers are too large to be ignored. In the last analysis what the public schools teach is a matter for the people who pay the taxes to decide, not a scientific elite.

See the following for a summary of numerous recent polls on the subject.

In short, the public schools should teach the truth. The truth is that the contemporary community of scientists, without significant exception, hold to a broadly Darwinian view of evolution. That is what contemporary science is. The truth also is that huge numbers of Americans want alternatives presented as well. The schools do not have to settle the question of whether Intelligent Design or Darwinian evolution is true. They just need to teach the truth about these contemporary ways of understanding. By the way, those cartoons that suggest teaching creationism or Intelligent Design alongside Darwinian evolution is like teaching phrenology, flat earth theory, astrology, etc. alongside neurology, round earth, and astronomy are misleading. All these latter theories are now generally discredited but in their time were held by learned scholars as well as by the population as a whole. When only an insignificant number of the population hold to creationism or Intelligent Design, then the cartoon will be relevant but no longer funny.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Science and God

OK, let's get one thing straight: Eminence in science does not automatically qualify one as an expert in religion. Yet such is the prestige of science in our culture that the opinions of scientists are regarded as having a unique credence. What Harry Emerson Fosdick said decades ago still holds, "We have come to the point that the greatest compliment that can be paid to God is that some scientist believes in him!" The opposite is true as well. If a scientist says science undermines belief in God, that is thought to be especially devastating to religion. Nonsense.

The fact is that science as science has nothing to say, absolutely nothing, about God one way or the other, and a scientist as scientist has no more authority on the subject than bar tenders, taxi drivers slightly intoxicated prostitutes. pimps, or Tom DeLay -- all of whom have on occasion. regarded themselves as experts. In fact, most everyone thinks he/she can speak with authority about religion.

When scientists deny the reality of God, they are offering a philosophical overbelief that cannot be tested empirically and yields no scientifically testable hypotheses. It is not a scientific statement. Frequently what underlies scientific atheism is an assumption that can be called scientism. It goes like this: What cannot be known by science is not only unknowable but is not real. This proposition is then fatuously offered as a necessary implication of science in ignorance of the fact that the scientist in question has left science and is speaking as a philosopher. That is fine, but let us not be fooled into believing that this sleight of hand gives scientific credibility to the underlying scientism.

One hears from some scientists that religion is the source of fanaticism, violence, war, persecution, and a host of other evils. Some think we would be better off if we were enlightened enough by science to get rid of it altogether. A few seem reluctant to admit that religion had any role in social progress, e. g., in combating slavery, the oppression of women, and promoting civil rights. No one outdoes me in pointing to the dark side of religion. But what the critics neglect is the ambiguity attached to religion as to all human endeavors. Religion inspires good and evil, compassion and violence. These scientists could look equally to politics and point out the horrors of Hitler and Stalin, e. g., and conclude that we should abolish government.

And what about science? It was not Baptist preachers who gave us nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction. J. Robert Oppenhemier, one of the creators of the first atomic bomb, said if nuclear weapons were to be added to arsenal of usable weapons, "then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima." Again, "the physicists have known sin, and this is a knowledge they cannot lose." He confessed that he had "blood on his hands." Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi, themselves notable scientists, wrote that the bomb could not be justified on any ethical ground and added, " It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light." Why not abolish science?

Current research in the life sciences sometimes gets into areas that are morally problematic. Yet, as Robert Pollack observes, ". . . for more than three decades, there have been no reports of any scientist, in any field, precipitating a voluntary moratorium on any line of active basic research in order to establish a regulated system of approval for further work." Robert Pollack, "A Place for Religion in Science"?
Cross Currents (Summer 2005)

What we need is an examination of the scope and limits of scientific knowledge. The resolution of this issue requires philosophical reasoning in which scientists may engage, but let us not be seduced into believing that science as science can resolve it, although it may contribute valuable, even essential, data. Let us note that scientists and philosophers hold a variety of views on the nature, scope, and limits of scientific knowledge. There are realists, idealists, positivists, pragmatists, and so on. Yet they can work side by side in the laboratory doing scientific research that is entirely unaffected by the conflicting philosophies they hold on extra-scientific matters. Likewise, atheists and theists can cooperate in scientific projects without any conflict whatsoever.

If there are realities that scientific method cannot as such discern, then we need other modes of thought to complete our understanding of things. Let us take some easy examples. Science as such cannot give us direct knowledge of pain, consciousness, or purpose. Yet most of us believe they are real. Science cannot observe pain. Scientists can observe the physiological correlates of pain and note the behavior of organisms experiencing pain, but they cannot detect the pain itself. Why do you think doctors ask you for a subjective evaluation of your pain on a scale of 1 to 10? They do not ask you what you think your blood pressure is or what the sodium levels in your blood or your HCT are. They measure them quantitatively with their instruments. Likewise, consciousness cannot be observed by scientific procedures, although the physical processes that underly and are associated with consciousness can. Science studies the brain not the mind. Science cannot observe purpose in organisms. They can only observe behavior that they can infer seems to imply internal purposes. Noting this, psychologist B. F. Skinner proposed simply to devise rules of behavior without any necessary reference to mind, consciousness, purpose, or mental processes. That does not mean that what he excluded is unreal but only that science has limits in what it can directly know. Science discerns only those aspects of reality that are open to inspection by its methods.

Alfred North Whitehead figured all this out long ago with a knowledge of science and philosophy that few in our time or any time have had. I quote from his Modes of Thought: "Science can find no individual enjoyment in nature: Science can find no creativity in nature; it finds mere rules of succession. These negations are true of natural science. They are inherent in its methodology. The reason for this blindness of physical science lies in the fact that such science only deals with half the evidence provided by human experience."

I would just note that what Whitehead means is that science can only deal with that half of the evidence that is provided by observing things from the outside as objects. The half it neglects is the internal experience of organisms as subjects who have purposes of their own that cannot be observed as such from the outside. Some organisms are conscious, and sometimes they feel pain or joy or sadness or love, all of which are as real as the entities entertained in scientific inquiry.

What we need is a philosophy that puts all this together in a coherent manner and that is consistent with all the evidence provided by our sense experience of objects and our internal experience as feeling, thinking, purposing subjects. This philosophy, I believe, has to include a reference to God. Science as science and scientists as scientists can neither confirm or refute the reality of God, although valuable data is provided by scientific inquiry that in our time must be included in a total philosophy that is theoretically cogent and existentially adequate.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Palestinian Violence and Pro-Israel Bias

Much of the condemnation of Palestinian violence against Israel assumes the moral equality of the contending parties. Palestinians, the argument goes, must cease all violence against Israel before meaningful progress can be made toward peace through dialogue. That demand would be justified if the two sides started on a level playing field, but that is not the case. What is forgotten is that Israel is an occupying power, an invader.

Let Israel withdraw to some equivalence of the 1967 borders. Then violence on either side against the other can be rightfully condemned on an equal basis. Until then the demand for the cessation of Palestinian violence against Israel is a moral posture neglectful of relevant facts.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Suicide Bombers and Simplistic Explanations

What motivates the Muslim suicide bombers? Is it their religion? Is it historical, social, and psychological factors like unemployment, fear, resentment, shame, humiliation, hopelessness, social chaos, limited options in new, strange, and threatening environments? Do the actions of the United States and other Western powers in the world in the imperialistic past and self-interested present, especially our one- sided support of Israel and corrupt, tyrannical Arab countries, and our dogged determination to maintain access to oil in the Mideast have anything to do with it? Or is it evil choices made by some individuals in the name of distorted values and extremist religion?

The answer is yes, all of the above, and probably more that requires more knowledge than we have. It is not just the Muslim religion alone, or social and psychological factors generated by the local environment alone, or personal choice unconditioned by history, culture, social location or religion but some complicated combination of all and more working itself out in a variety of configurations in different people but leading to volatile, violent, tragic outcomes for them and others. We need to focus on the Muslim religion in a particular historical, cultural context under certain psychological and social conditions eliciting personal decisions that lead to terrorist acts. Efforts to reduce terrorism must work at all these levels and include all these dimensions.

We cannot avoid the religious dimension by simply repeating the mantra that Muslim means "peace" or "jihad" means personal struggle against internal evil. We cannot escape by saying naively that the Muslim religion doesn't really teach that. There are elements in the Koran and in Muslim history that can be appropriated to justify in their minds their terrorist acts. Similarly Christian Klu Klux Klansmen and Nazis could quote Scripture and employ Christian symbols to support their racist violence. We could refer to the Book of Joshua and Esther 9 as precedents for most any kind of aggression in the name of God we wanted to imagine. Remember the rural Georgia dictum: "You can prove anything by the Bible," and forget all the obscure, thick books by German scholars on hermeneutics.

It is futile in the short run to argue about what the Bible or the Koran or Christianity or Muslim faith really stands for historically if properly understood. These traditions finally mean in practical, experiential terms what somebody here and now believes them to mean, imply, and require. Actual beliefs and practices are what count not some idealized essence of the Koran or the Bible created by scholars and historians. What they "really teach" is operationally a useless category in the immediate situation and in any situation unless somebody's mind is changed in the process.

Social and psychological factors arising out of a particular ensemble of destructive environmental factors do shape and condition minds and lead to destructive behavior. Personal decision and commitment to live, believe, and act a certain way under these social conditions while professing a particular religious faith complete the pattern.

Is it a matter of religion? Yes. It is a matter of environment and culture? Certainly. Does individual choice play a role. Of course. Is it hard to put all this together with more to get a universal, simple explanation? Absolutely. We should resist simplistic explanations, especially those that serve the self-interest or ideology of those putting them forth, e. g., presidents, preachers, politicians, professors, pundits, and prostitutes, to risk redundancy.

Religion, History, Culture, and Choice -- all are involved in various ways and degrees in different inviduals in the production of terrorists who blow up buildings, buses, trains, and people. We neglect any of them at our peril. Propagandists -- politicians, religious dogmatists, pundits, e. g. -- with their own ideologies and agendas are quick to offer trite nostrums. We must resist and condemn them and demand comprehensive analysis and realistic responses if we want to put an end to terrorism while there is still time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

What the Bible is all About

Implicit in the Bible is a religious and moral vision unsurpassable in excellence. At its heart is the developing story of a Powerful Creative Love at the base of all things whose purpose is to create and to perfect a people and a cosmos. At the end of the drama a community united in the love and praise of God and one another lives in a world free from all suffering and evil, and death is no more.

The Good News is that God loves us and seeks to perfect us in a community of universal justice and joy. The proper human response is to reproduce in our actions toward others the quality (love) and aim (a perfected, evil-free community) of God's action in the whole world. Simply put, the Gospel is this: God loves you. Love God totally and your neighbor as yourself as all together seek a community in which peace and justice reign and all human ills have been abolished allowing the human potential for joy and happiness to be universally and fully realized.

I believe this is the acme of the vision that arises out of the interior logic of the biblical witness as a whole. It took centuries for its fullness to be revealed, and at every stage its purity was obscured by being filtered through cultural understandings that frequently masked and sometimes overpowered its own inner rationale. In the Old Testament, e. g., God is often seen as commanding, approving, and even perpetrating massive violence. Genesis 6, the Book of Joshua, and Esther 9 are prime examples. The text reflects the culture in which it was written, including its prejudices, in ways that often contradict what is highest and best in its own message. The acceptance of slavery, the subordination of women, and the acceptance of the death penalty for a multitude of offenses, some quite trivial (See Leviticus and Deuteronomy) illustrate the adulteration that has to be purged in order to see what is permanently valuable.

The New Testament, including Jesus, teaches an absolute division between the saved and the lost in which the wicked are to be everlastingly punished. Such a rigid separation contradicts the gradations and complexities of human virtue. The same holds for the faith that receives grace, which can be strong or weak, steady or wavering, etc. It is also contrary to the universalism implicit in the logic of the gospel of love that does not rest until all are included. The desire to punish the wicked without limit I suspect originates in the experience of an oppressed people who cannot conceive of a just ending to history that does not involve the utter destruction of their enemies. Making the punishment everlasting is an understandable excess perhaps, but it does not represent the foundational motifs of the Bible itself.

This account of the heart of the Bible is, of course, mine and is viewed through my own set of cultural and personal filters. We have the Gospel only in some version of it. We have the treasure in earthen vessels (2 Cor.4:7). Every presentation will always say as much about us as it does the Bible. All the disputes that rage today are conflicts between different versions of what is obligatory for us today in the message of this ancient document. Moreover, novel filters are added as we confront situations never confronted or imagined in the Bible itself, e. g. stem cell research.

What annoys me most is that some parties claim not to have merely a version but the truth about the matter, the real thing, the genuine article. Catholic and Protestant varieties abound. Disappointment lies in the fact that those who are so sure they have the truth straight from God often propose standards of conduct that seem to me not only to be destructive of human well-being. but also to obscure what is highest and best in the Bible itself.

The standard of judgment for all doctrines and moral views is the supremely excellent vision implicit in the received tradition. When I am critical of some things in the Bible or of some interpretations of the Bible, it is because I am convinced that there is something so much better in its witness that is being missed, ignored, or obscured.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Family Values in the Bible

The Evangelicals are right. We need a return to good family values. What better place to look than to the Bible for guidance, as they would certainly agree. Here is a sample:

1. Adam and Eve had two sons, Cain and Abel. One of them murdered the other. Gen. 4:8

2. Women on earth messed around with some strange mighty men of old, men of renown, (sons of God) and had babies with them. Gen. 6:1-4

3. After the flood Noah took to the wine got drunk and lay naked. One of his sons (Ham) did something forbidden (incest?) and Noah cursed his descendants. (Gen. 9:2-27

4. Sarah had produced no heir for Abraham, so he had a child with Sarah's servant Hagar. Gen. 16:1ff.

5. Lot offered his two virgin daughters to the men of Sodom and told them to do what they wanted. He did this to satisfy them when they demanded to have sex with his male guests, a great act of hospitality in the eyes of all. Gen. 19:4-8

6. Lot lived in a cave with his two daughters. Fearing they could not find a husband, they got their father drunk and had sex with him, and both got pregnant. Gen. 19:30-36

7. Abraham was prepared to stick a knife through his son's heart and set him on fire, i. e., sacrifice his son on the altar, to show his loyalty to God, who had prepared this nifty little way of testing the patriarch's faith. Gen. 22:1-14

Noting that several of these ancient heroes had more than one wife, let us move on to family values in other parts of the Bible.

8. Fathers are authorized to sell their daughters into slavery. Ex. 21:7

9. If you curse or strike your mother or father, you are to be killed. Ex. 21:15, 17

10. If you worship the wrong god or have sex with an animal, you are to be killed. Ex. 22:19-20

11. Stubborn sons are to be stoned to death. Deut. 21:18-21

12. Adulterers are to be put to death, so are people who commit incest and males who have sex with each other. Lev. 20:10-16

13. By now we are getting the picture, so let us move rapidly to David, the Warrior King, who arranged to have a man killed in battle so he could take his wife Bathsheba, with whom he had been intimate, as his wife. II Sam. 10: 11:1-27

14. Solomon, a very wise man, had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines. I Kings 11:3

15. Jesus allows men to divorce their wives on the grounds of adultery but not because of cruelty, violence, abandonment, or voting for Republicans. Matt. 5:31
16. Oops, it seems that Jesus allows no divorce at all, not even for cruelty, violence, abandonment, or voting for Republicans. Mark 10:1-12

17. Women are told to keep quiet in church and ask their husbands later what happened. I Cor. 14:34-36

18. Wives are told as the weaker sex to submit to their husbands, to be subject to them in everything. Ephes. 5:22,24; Col 3:18; I Peter 3:1

19. In these same passages husbands are urged to love their wives and treat them gently, loving them as they love their own bodies. This is good.

20. Households are assumed to have slaves, who are also to be obedient to their masters.

21. Eve was deceived in the garden of Eden, not Adam. Women are not to teach men or have authority over them. They should learn in silence with all submissiveness. I Tim. 2:11-15

With these examples as our guides, we can surely figure the rest out and adapt these ancient teachings to modern conditions. Surely we will be better off if we do so. I am with the Evangelicals on this point.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Sin of Inclusiveness

The World Council of Churches is so inclusive that it has to tread softly with regard to the ordination of women and same-sex relationships.

The National Council of Churches is so inclusive that it cannot be inclusive enough. It refuses membership to the Metropolitan Community Church (a refuge for gay people) because the Orthodox Church threatens to leave if they do.

In every main-line denomination in this country homosexuality is debated hotly, and in some the ordination of women is divisive.

Progressive American Baptists want to embrace gay-friendly congregations. Conservative Baptists want to exclude them from fellowship. Progressives pitch the battle on Baptist principles of soul liberty, autonomy of local churches, and the like while conservatives say it is a matter of obeying Scripture, which condemns homosexual conduct.

Inclusion and diversity were highly praised at the school where I taught. But we did not have an biblical inerrantist on the faculty, and I would have opposed hiring one. I liked to make this point. I delighted even more in needling the enthusiasts of inclusiveness and diversity in this bastion of freedom who wanted rules forbidding sexist language and certain moral positions in chapel worship. The point is that even those who love inclusiveness the most have their own rules of exclusion if things get bad enough.

In recent days we have been rightly aghast at the Baptist pastor in North Caroline who wanted to expel members who voted for John Kerry last November. But let us be honest. As much as we may value diversity, pluralism, inclusivity, and tolerance, we all draw a line at some point or ought to. If five people as a group presented themselves for membership in your church making it clear they would be loud and persistent in teaching that God hates blacks, gays, and liberal judges, would you vote to take them in? I wouldn't.

Diversity, inclusiveness, tolerance, pluralism are good things, but they are limited not complete, relative not absolute. Unity of belief and practice in a group is not only valuable but at some level is essential to community morale and effective functioning. Passionate, intense devotion to something important cannot easily coexist with its opposite. It is hard to be tolerant of what is deeply abhorrent to us when something vital is at stake. Breadth of inclusion stands in tension with depth of commitment to a single truth about things. At some point embracing variety in an atmosphere of unqualified tolerance ceases to be a virtue. Too much diversity compromises clarity of witness. Trumpets of uncertain sound prepare no one for battle (I Cor. 14:8).

We generally avoid a stark confrontation on divisive issues by a process based on destiny (the groups we are born into) and choice (the groups we choose). We usually end up with people who more or less share our point of view on doctrine, morals, style of worship, and so on. We can afford inclusiveness and diversity within limits in our habitual environments, especially if there are gains associated with membership in the larger community that outweigh the disadvantages of conflict on some particular points. Obviously, this is what keeps the National and World Councils of Churches together, despite the painful controversies that threaten their unity. Individual denominations can embrace threatening differences and survive for the same reason.

Sometimes, however, a crisis arises that forces us to decide whether the price of inclusiveness is worth tolerating doctrines and practices abhorrent to us. There are no easy solutions or infallible guidelines, only tentative ad hoc adjustments as circumstances merit. Purity of principle is a futile quest. We have to muddle through as best we can. A pragmatic approach seeking the broadest inclusiveness compatible with tolerable diversity under given conditions will serve us best.

Inclusiveness is gained at the expense of diversity on specific points of doctrines and morals. The more inclusive and diverse a group is, the more general must be the principle of union in order to allow for disagreements on subsidiary matters. Sometimes disputes on particulars within the framework of unity become acute and threaten to take precedence over what unites the community at some higher level. An indefinite number of compromises and accommodations can preserve the unity of the whole in the midst of painful diversity.

But we cannot rule out the possibility that the time might come when we need to get out or to throw the offending rascals out if we have the power. And, of course, this is where the agony of decision begins with pain following. In many churches on the gay issue and in some on the ordination of women that is exactly where we are right now.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Saving Social Security

All of Bush's proposals so far are bad. His economic plutocrats will not permit any good ones because raising taxes is by definition bad. They claim it would not be good for the economy. The real reason is that it would cost them some money.

Nevertheless, consider this. The upper limit on incomes subject to payroll taxes today is $90,000. In 1981, 90 percent of the total income earned in wages and salaries was subject to the payroll tax. Income has shifted to those with higher incomes. The result is that only 85% of such income is liable to the the payroll tax today. Hiking the level to 90% again would require that the upper limits would have to be $138,000. This would take care of about 1/3 of the 75-year gap between tax revenues and benefit payments. See the February 18, 2005 edition of The Christian Science Monitor. See:

Removing the cap altogether would completely do even more. Why should there be a cap? Low income people pay on all their earnings. Rich folks should too.

We also need a wealth tax and to preserve the estate tax. Finally, we need to roll back the massive tax cuts for the rich that are already sending the deficit soaring out of sight. The justification for raising taxes on wealth and high incomes is simple. The production of income and wealth is a social process. No one can earn money without the functioning of an economic system that requires everyone -- those who clean the bathrooms and the offices of the rich -- as well as the talent and hard work of rich people. The notion that market forces distribute income and wealth in accordance with justice or rationality is absurd, a myth. Consider the fact, e. g., that professional athletes who earn 10 million dollars a year would gladly play for 5 or 2 million, if that is all they could get. Most of them could not earn nearly that much apart from their athletic skills. Nobel prize winning economists could make the case technically for everything I have said. It is ideology and selfish interest that are at the base of the rejection of such ideas, not economic fact or logic.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Assessing Public Discourse in America Today

Here is the way public issues are discussed in our time. A question in dispute arises. Two opposing groups form at the extremes. They are loud, deeply committed, activist in temperament and practice, eager participants in politics and public debate. Each claims to have the full and complete truth without qualification. Each side demonizes their opposite number. Each denies the moral legitimacy and rationality of the other, while expressing bafflement that anyone could be so blind to the obvious facts and values involved.

Exaggerated? Of course, but who can deny that that a point has been made, recognized by all who are alert to what is going on. It is not difficult to find single issue absolutists and extremists about some issue. They frequently have their opposite numbers:

Extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession for everyone contend with gun control fanatics. The National Rife Association will not tolerate even the most reasonable restrictions, seeing in the mildest of measures a fatal threat to the rights of hunters, sportsmen, target shooters, and even a dagger in the Constitution, democracy, and civilization itself. Gun control advocates tend to exaggerate the importance of the issue, and I wonder if some of them have an elitist bias against hunters and rural folk generally, suspecting they are culturally handicapped,throwbacks to a former era.

Free choice zealots vie in unrelenting fashion with anti-abortion zealots. The former ignore, evade, or downplay the fact that a fetus is a potential person, while the latter assert categorically that from the point of conception on an actual person already exists -- an affront to science, philosophy and reason generally.

Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim fundamentalists.

The American Civil Liberties Union tends to absolutize individual freedom and rights to the neglect of social good. I am a member because I think we need an extremist organization like this, although I cringe at some of the repugnant positions and parties they defend.

Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in their opponents' claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form "two communities of suffering" (Edward Said) whose compassion for the other could surely find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.

The list could go on. A little humility, respect for the integrity of the other side, and a recognition of human finitude and fallibility would do wonders to lift the level of public discourse. So would a recognition that we (all of us, no exceptions) are prone to reason from a limited, often self-centered, selfish, perspective.

Is there any hope for improvement? Not much. Why? Go back to the first paragraph.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

I Fear Absolutism More Than Relativism

Popes and people who write letters to the editor worry about relativism. It is, they lament, a hazard to morality portending chaos and destruction. If truth be told, relativism is a complicated concept with many meanings and ambiguities, but this does not faze the critics, who usually leave the word undefined. Whatever it means to them, it is bad. The surface meaning is that it refers to views they find inferior to their own and hazardous. Meanwhile, they assume or assert in full confidence that they possess the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

I have made my defense of a form of relativism (objective relativism, I call it) elsewhere. Here I boldly assert that absolutism is a greater threat to soul and body than all the extant relativisms in the world laid end to end. First, there are so many of them. Absolutists are all around us: Pious Popes, Protestant preachers, and pompous politicians come immediately to mind. Taxi drivers, barbers, free market economists, right-wing think tanks, liberals who want speech or practices offensive to them suppressed, and many people who write letters to editors can be added.

Then there are single issue absolutists, who usually have their opposite numbers: extremist advocates of unrestricted gun possession for everyone contend with gun control fanatics, free choice zealots vie with anti-abortion zealots. Christian fundamentalists attack Muslim fundamentalists. Israeli and Palestinian extremists will apparently fight to the death rather than compromise or recognize any validity in their opponent's claims. Actually, Israelis and Palestinians form two communities of suffering whose compassion for the other could surely find a road to peace with approximate justice for all.

The danger lies in the fact that the certainty of absolutists is a temptation to suppress error. Some extremists use violence without apology. The worst of the absolutists will gladly cut your head off, burn you up, torture you, cut off your testicles or breasts in the name of God if you challenge their assumed prerogatives. We could all make a long list of past examples without breaking a sweat. On a kinder scale absolutists in churches will punish ministerial dissent or practice on the issue of homosexuality.

Yes, there is a form of relativism that may degenerate into nihilism in which might takes precedence over notions of right. In short, the extremes of absolutism and relativism are dangerous. But in a world full of people who are so damn sure they know the truth and you don't, some dissent, some vigorous questioning of authority, some appeals for humility, tolerance, and modesty are healthy. They are, in fact, essential in preventing us from falling into extremes of absolutism which will suppress doubt and punish doubters. In the present world I fear the power of aggressive absolutists more than I fear the nihilism of reckless relativists.