Thursday, April 30, 2015

Filling the gaps with Silly Putty

This is, in part, moving in tandem with what Anthony is posting just now.  It is also, in part, just my reading of Armstrong's The Case for God.  Last night I got to the section on Newton, which makes me want to research a question I'd never thought before to ask:  "When did God become omnipotent and omniscient?"

Because the answer may end up being:  Newton.

That is, he continues from age to age, and is present from infinity to infinity; he rules all things and he knows what happens and what is able to happen.
That is not Newton speaking of Newton; or Newton speaking of the scientist.  That is Newton describing God, a God he asserts because it explains the mechanical universe Newton has "created."

First, a word of explanation.  Newton, in Karen Armstrong's telling, unified the theories of Kepler (on planetary motion), Descartes (on physics) and Galileo (on terrestrial movement).  He understood gravity as "the fundamental force that accounted for all celestial and earthly activity."  (Armstrong, p. 202).  Mechanics, argued Newton, was the model which explained all the functions of the universe.  But to be truly universal, mechanics must explain ALL the phenomena of the universe.

Though these bodies may, indeed, continue in their orbits by the mere laws of gravity, yet they could by no means have at first derived the regular position of the orbits themselves by these laws.

Newton, quoted in Armstrong, p. 203.

Newton was a genius, but he wasn't omniscient.  Still, he wanted an answer to all questions, and he thought he had it.  See if this doesn't sound familiar today:  "When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe in a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more than to find it usefull for that purpose."  The mathematical balance of the universe "forced [Newton] to ascribe it to ye counsel and contrivance of a voluntary Agent...very will skilled in Mechanicks and Geometry."  Gravity "may yet put ye planes into motion but without ye divine powers, it could never put them into such Circulating motion as they have about ye sun."

Inertia held the planets in motion, yet they "must have required a divine power to impress them."  And what put the Earth so perfectly placed around the sun and set it spinning on its axis so well that the planet neither burned from too long a day, nor froze from too long a night?  The only answer Newton had was:  God.  Newton was less interested in establishing a scientific explanation of the universe, than he was in establishing what we would now deride as "intelligent design."

None of this is to say Newton got his theology right. In fact, he got it all wrong, because he reduced God to the universe humans could find an explanation for. As Armstrong puts it:  "God's existence was now a rational consequence of the world's intricate design."

Before we go much further, let's just consider what this has to do with God's omniscience and omnipotence.  The latter is a consequence of God's presence in the universe.  God, said Newton, is "omnipresent not virtually only but substantially."  Gravity was not just a force of nature, but the action of God.  Moreover, the God who "continues from age to age, and is present from infinity to infinity," and who "rules all things," is a God of dominion.  This is not a God who is other, or kenotic; this is a God whose primary characteristic is "Dominion," (Newton's term), and such a God must have "intelligence, perfection, eternity, infinity, omniscience and omnipotence."  (Armstrong, p. 204.)  Because without it, how can such a God keep the universe operating?

(Sidebar that belatedly occurs to me:  I remember a seminary professor talking derisively of people who imagined Jesus of Nazareth being both human and God, eating and drinking while also busily keeping all the planets spinning in their courses.  I only know understand the concept he was mocking was Newton's, not Christianity's.  Well, not until Christianity adopted it; which soon after Newton, some did.)

It's easy to retroject this back onto God in the Scriptures.  The problem is, God is not omniscient in the Hebrew scriptures, and it's unclear whether even Aquinas thought God to be as Newton required.  Two examples from the Hebrew Scriptures will suffice:  "The heart is devious, beyond all fathoming. I, God, test the heart," says Jeremiah.  The other, and perhaps most famous, example, is God finding Adam and Eve in the Garden and learning, belatedly, that they have eaten the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (which, if ever a story in scripture was meant to be an allegory based on a metaphor, surely this one is it!).  Literalists will tie themselves into knots trying to explain how an omniscient God can be surprised.  But maybe the problem is in our concept, not in the story.  Maybe the problem is, as Karen Armstrong argues, that we decided God was not "other," but was so familiar he could plan out our lives for us, and even give us what we ask for if, like Joel Osteen, we just ask for wealth and happiness (which comes from wealth, apparently, first and foremost).

It seems the "God of the Gaps" was born, not from theology retreating before science's approach, but from science's encroachment into theology.  And when that went sour, science blamed theology.  Nice work if you can get it, and get it science pretty much did.

I'm beginning to reappraise my discomfort with Bultmann's efforts to "demythologize."  I still agree with Armstrong, that mythos (as she defines it, and she doesn't define it all that well) is essential to human existence, because we are religious beings (religion is innate to human beings, not imposed upon them.  Jefferson will get a rather thorough trashing before we are finished, if only because he is the poster child for many modern atheistic misunderstandings.  By the way, per Armstrong, Jefferson was a Deist, not an atheist.  We'll get back to that, because there is a thread from Newton to Jefferson we have to follow.).  But to understand mythos correctly, it may be that we need to demythologize in order to get there.

Those comments may seem a leap, but Armstrong goes on to describe the God of Newton, and more importantly, the Christianity of Newton.  Nature replaces revelation, the Book of Nature replacing (almost) the Scriptures.  In The Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology, Armstrong says Newton argued that "Noah had founded a faith based on the rational contemplation of nature.  There had been no revealed scriptures, no miracles, and no mysteries." (If you can't already see the connections to Jefferson and the Deists, be patient; connections will be made.)  This faith had been "the true religion till ye nations corrupted it," and science was the only means for properly understanding the sacred:  "For there is no way to come to ye knowledge of a Deity but by ye frame of nature."  The fundamental religion had been corrupted with "Monstrous Legends, false miracles, veneration of reliques, charmes, ye doctrine of Ghosts or Daemons, and their intercession, invocation & worship and other heathen superstitions." (Newton, quoted in Armstrong, p. 205).

Do you now hear Newton echoed in Jefferson and the other Deists of Revolutionary America?

Such things were superstitions not just because they offended scientific reason, but because they offended the clockwork universe.  Miracles are, by definition, disruptions in the natural order.  The God who is the mechanical universe cannot disrupt the natural order; that's asking God to violate God's self.  The idea offends reason.  Which explains why Jefferson cut all such stories about miracles out of his "Jefferson Bible."

But Newton didn't accomplish this by overwhelming the theologians.  The church, or some leaders of it, embraced this idea as the new and rational theology the world needed. Not surprisingly (well, unless you think of Cotton Mather as the caricature of a Puritan rooting out sexual desire and witches his entire life*), Cotton Mather took to Newton's theology.  Puritans were already strongly anti-Papist (they were "Puritans" because they wanted to purge, or "purify," the Church of England of it's liturgical trappings and Roman Catholic ideas).  He liked it because it seemed, like the Puritans themselves, to return the church to an original state; and because Puritans liked nothing more than to condemn anything even vaguely connected to Rome as superstition (and so they banned Christmas celebrations, or even the observance of Christmas, for as long as they could).

Intelligent design, springing from Newton, became the standard of science itself.  Robert Boyle, physicist, chemist, and founding member of the Royal Society, thought the mechanistic universe proved the existence of a celestial Engineer.  Richard Bentley, in his Boyle lectures, argued that:

almost everything in the World demonstrates to us this great Truth; and affords undeniable Arguments, to prove that the World and all Things therein, are the Effects of an Intelligent and Knowing Cause.
(Quoted in Armstrong, p. 207)

The problem is obvious.  As Armstrong observes:

Where Basil, Augustine, and Thomas had insisted that the natural world could tell us nothing about God, Newton, Bentley, and Clarke argued that nature could tell us everything we need to know about the divine.  God was no longer transcendent, no longer beyond the reach of language and concepts.  As Clarke had shown, his will and attributes could be charted, measured, and definitively proven in twelve clear and distinct propositions.
(Armstrong, pp. 207-208)

If I wanted to look at this from a distinctly historical perspective I'd link these Newtonian theologians back to the Scholastics of the late medieval period, who made much the same claims, only without a clockwork universe to base them on.  That these claims have fallen apart, thanks to the very science they were based on, is obvious.  The question now is:  with what Renaissance will we recover from these neo-Scholastics?

* a corrective for that which even Armstrong overlooks is the work of Mather himself.  It seems rather clear from his accounts of life in Salem that the witch trials, much as he may have helped foment them, took on a life which controlled his rather than he controlling them.  It's likely Mather learned a few theological, and pastoral, lessons from those events.  It's clear he wasn't a McCarthy-esque figure, rooting out witches until some finally shamed him into standing down.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Case for Music

The problem with reading a long work like Karen Armstrong's The Case for God is that you want to stop and examine, even explicate, passages all along the way; and which is the best one to start with? In the end, the choice has to be arbitrary:

When he dedicated his Meditations on First Philosophy to "The Most Illustrious Dean and Doctors of the Sacred Faculty of Theology in Paris," Descartes made an astonishing claim:  "I have always considered that the two questions respecting God and the soul were the chief of those that out to be demonstrated by philosophical [i.e., 'scientific"] rather than theological argument."  In the clear expectation that they would agree with him, Descartes calmly informed the most distinguished body of theologians in Europe that they were not competent to discuss God.  Mathematics and physics would do the job more effectively.  And the theologians were all too happy to agree.  It was a fateful move.  Henceforth, theology would increasingly be translated into a "philosophical" or "scientific" idiom that was alien to it.
Karen Armstong, The Case for God, p. 197.

Armstrong lays a lot of groundwork for the idea that theology is not philosophy or science, and doesn't need to be.   She ably points out that most of the "proofs" of God present in the work of Anselm or Aquinas are not "proofs" in the modern sense at all, because they don't presuppose God's non-existence which existence must be established by rational argument.  Interestingly, the modern "proof" that God exists because the universe shows evidence of an "intelligent designer" is not modern at all; it dates to the early 17th century, where it began not as a proof of the existence of God, but as a counter to the idea that God needn't be involved in creation at all.  As Armstrong puts the matter:

Thomas Aquinas had insisted that we could not learn anything about the nature of God from the created world; now the complexity that scientists were discovering in the universe had persuaded theologians that God must be an Intelligent Designer.  Denys and Thomas would not have approved. 
Armstrong, p. 193.

In other words, the problems of the "proofs" of God's existence, and even the denial of God, began not with the scientists, but with the theologians.  Perhaps they were lured by this:

Even those who could see flaws in Descartes' Universal Mathematics were excited by the idea of a mechanical universe, ruled at all times and in all places by the same unequivocal laws.  Increasingly, the mechanical universe would be seen as a model for society.  Citizens should submit to a rational government in the same way as the different parts of the cosmos obeyed the rational laws of the scientific God.  People were also intrigued by the idea of a single method that would lead infallibly to wisdom and certainty and make the existence of God as necessary and lucid as one of Euclid's theorems.  Doubt and perplexity would soon be things of the past.
Armstrong, p. 198.

Certainty is the keystone, there.  The turn from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment is marked, in Armstrong's telling, by the advent of "certainty" as the touchstone for human knowledge.  We still haven't quite knocked the stuffing out of that hubris, but that theologians turned from the apophatic (Armstrong's thesis throughout) to certainty is a real source of our difficulties with religious belief today.  It is this passage on Pascal, though, that encapsulates, as well as any other, Armstrong's argument:

Pascal could see that Christianity was about to make a serious mistake.  Theologians were eager to embrace the modern ethos and make their teaching conform to the "clear and distinct" ideas currently in vogue, but how far should the new science impinge upon religion?  A God who was merely "the author of mathematical truths and of the order of the elements" could bring no light to the darkness and pain of human existence.  It would only cause people to fall into atheism.  Pascal was one of the first people to see that atheism--meaning a radical denial of God's existence--would soon become a serious option.  A person who had not engaged himself [sic] with the rituals, exercises, and practices of religion would not be convinced by the arguments of the philosophers; for such a person, faith could only be a wager, a leap in the dark.  Pascal had developed his own rational powers more than most:  by the age of eleven, he had worked out for himself the first twenty-three propositions of Euclie; at sixteen, he had published a remarkable treatise on geometry; and he went on to invent a calculating machine, a barometer, and a hydraulic press.  But he knew that reason could not produce religious conversion; "the heart" had its own reasons for faith.
Armstrong, p. 199.

I should explain here that, for Armstrong, the "rituals, exercises [spiritual, she means], and practices of religion" are, for her, the practical side of religion.  They mark the commitment of faith.  Not a blind acceptance of absurdity, or adoption of a body of belief; but engagement in practical transformative acts which lead the adherent to an experience of the divine, the ineffable, and the truth espoused by the proponents of the practices.  One commits, in other words, to the practices, and one is transformed by them, coming into deeper contact with, in the Christian/Jewish case, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus.  This is a constant thread that she traces from the caves of Lascaux through (primarily) Western culture.  As she says in the introduction:  "Religion....was not primarily something that people thought about but something they did.  Its truth was acquired by practical action....There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible." (p. xii).

I find a comparison to learning to play music instructive here, especially if you turn from being a soloist to being an ensemble player.  Some of the most truly transcendent experiences I have had, experiences that were almost kenotic (self-emptying) involved training myself to play and perform music to the point it became, not a conscious action, but almost a spiritual one.   That experience was intensified, and more likely, when I performed with other musicians.

 It is interesting how we insist some people can be musicians, and some cannot; that some people "get" music in a way others of us never will; yet we all must have equal access to spirituality and, if we don't, then spirituality must be bunk and self-delusion.  I've come close enough to true musicianship in my personal experience to have seen the vista of that "promised land," though I'll never enter it.  Should I say, then, that music and all it can mean to audience and performer, is bunk?

But the more interesting question is:  why do we keep making apologia like that?  I think, despite the rantings of the on-line atheists (who, yes, are about to get swept off the world stage they think they stand on by the rising tide of population from predominantly Muslim countries), there is a slow shift once again away from reason and understanding as the basis for all valid human effort.  It began in Europe with World War I, and while it isn't leading to a resurgence of religious belief a la yet another "Great Awakening" (which, in retrospect, is looking more and more like less and less), I think the turn is proceeding apace without, shall we say, Dawkins or Bultmann.

A conversation I may yet get into.....

It's coming to take you away.....

When I get a burr under my saddle, nothing will do until I remove it.

Consider a piece of paper.  What did it take to get it into your hands?

Whatever the content of the paper, pulp or rag or linen, it started out as a plant.  Coming from plants and getting to paper means that, even at the very beginning, there was an industrial process in place.  Raising enough cotton or flax or trees to turn into a product like a sheet of paper that isn't as rare as the vellum monks used to write on in scriptoria, requires agriculture on an industrial scale.  And that doesn't even include the harvesting of the plants, and the steps to turn that plant into pulp or cloth so it can be converted into paper, another set of processes.  And then it has to be packaged and shipped to you, or to a store near you.

We are used to being abjured to not think meat comes from the store wrapped in plastic, but from animals in fields somewhere on the planet.  We don't quite have the same regard for a piece of paper.

And the energy required to harvest the raw product of that paper.  Probably much of it rests on chemical fertilizers, a product of the petro-chemical industry.  Which means the crop depends on the mining of petroleum products from the earth and processed into fertilizers just to be grown, much less to be harvested by diesel engines driving tractors and combines and hydraulic equipment to cut and harvest trees.  Petroleum is needed to transport those items to factories where they can start to become paper, and the factories are powered by coal or natural gas, or perhaps falling water or even nuclear fusion.  The process of creating fuel for a nuclear reactor is probably even more complex than that of refining petroleum into useable products.  If you don't think so, just ask Iran.

So the industrial processes necessary to put that piece of paper into your hands spiderwebs out from the sheet of paper at the center; it spreads like cracks in a pane of glass.  And it all rests on access to raw materials sufficient to become paper, raw materials that grow the plant that becomes the paper (set aside for the moment soil and water and oxygen), and all the industrial processes that, one way or another, contribute to or even make possible the production of that one sheet of paper.

And yet paper is simple; paper is old; paper is passĂ©.  We are a paperless society now; or at least, we aspire to be.

I own two Pelican fountain pens.  Both pens are older than my daughter by several years, and she's in her early 20's.  Both pens need to be repaired again, but they will be.  They need repairs because they are old.  They are also products of an elaborate set of industrial processes: the bodies are plastic (oil), the inner and some outer parts plastic and metal (mining, smelting).  Then there is the ink.  And yet these pens are models of simplicity compared to the tools of modern life:  pads and smartphones and the like.

I don't know anyone who has a smart phone or a tablet computer that is over 25 years old.  Those devices are vastly more complex, from an industrial standpoint, than a fountain pen and a piece of paper; and vastly more fragile.  When a tablet stops working as desired, it is discarded; it is not returned to the manufacturer to be repaired and restored.  We have lots of raw materials for more, lots of industrial capacity to provide a ready replacement, and no incentive not to just toss it on the waste pile; especially since that waste usually winds up in a foreign country.  That adds to the "fragility" of our planet, of course, but out of sight, out of mind.  Besides, we'll just colonize another planet; right?

With what?  We can't even make paper there.  Electronics?  When they fail, do we just expect another shipment from Earth of the latest product?  But what about poor, old, fragile Earth?  Who will be left here to mine the petroleum, the metals, grow and harvest the plants, man the factories, drive the trucks, just so those devices can be made to be shipped to another planet?  Aren't there resources in space?  Isn't that the idea?

Probably there are, but how do we gather them?  How do we refine them, without the industrial capacity Iran needs just to refine the raw material of nuclear fission in order to have the energy industrialization demands?  Is there oil on Mars, and can we drill it and refine it?  What fuel will heat the refineries, the blast furnaces, need to turn raw materials into something useable?  What plants on Mars ever turned into coal?  How will colonists function without plastics, the stuff not just of fountain pens but of computers?  What precious water will be devoted to ink, so a literate society can flourish on an arid Mars?

Or will literacy be the first thing we have to give up, in order to survive as a species?  And what complex society can function without records and written communications?

We've come to think of the products of industrial society as normal and normative.  We try to remind ourselves meat doesn't come packaged in styrofoam and plastic wrap, but first existed on the hoof.  We don't think about how many resources from the planet are necessary to provide and sustain that meat on the hoof, much less turn it into the convenience food we buy at the store.

We easily and willingly forget that the energy that runs our computers and our lights and our entire world was mined from somewhere, that even the solar panels and wind turbines started out as raw material industrial processes had to convert into something we can use.  We forget that mining is just the start of a long process that ends with a light coming on at the flick of a switch.

And unless we can take those industrial processes to the next planet and set them down before the non-factory workers get there, then we are setting up colonies in the Stone Age, or maybe even earlier than that.  And much as they might wish to industrialize, they won't be able to.  Not without the raw materials and the fuel sources we have now.  And without fossils, without animal life from the dim past, you don't have fossil fuels.

Any planet with life already that might have been around long enough to create fossil fuels, might not welcome a new species with open arms.

The idea that we are ever going to leave this planet without inventing magical devices like the technology of "Star Trek" is simply, well,  magical thinking.  In ST:NG, transporter technology is used to create food and even manufactured goods almost ex nihilo, powered by...well, by what?  Beyond dilithium crystals for warp engines, what is the fuel source of the Federation?  It doesn't matter, of course; it's fiction.  The fuel source might as well be the Tesseract from the Avengers movies.

We can't travel to another planet and live as our neolithic ancestors did, unless we find a planet with a biosphere that supports human life, but doesn't have any advanced life forms or predators to overwhelm us when we get there (or just microbes).  Even if the raw materials are there, how do we access them, how do we process them?  We can't take the factories with us, and we can't print the factories from 3-D printers.  And what would power these devices, these factories?  We would need either a supply line back to the uranium mines and centrifuges of Earth, or we would have to fall back on the energy of slaves from pre-industrial times.  One alternative is unimaginable, the other makes "colonization" a farce.

So when is this magical mystery tour going to begin?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The World is Flat

But only on the bottom....

In the words of an anthropologist:

None of the ISIS fighters we interviewed in Iraq had more than primary school education, some had wives and young children. When asked "what is Islam?" they answered "my life." They knew nothing of the Quran or Hadith, or of the early caliphs Omar and Othman, but had learned of Islam from Al Qaeda and ISIS propaganda, teaching that Muslims like them were targeted for elimination unless they first eliminated the impure. This isn't an outlandish proposition in their lived circumstances: as they told of growing up after the fall of Saddam Hussein in a hellish world of constant guerrilla war, family deaths and dislocation, and of not being even able to go out of their homes or temporary shelters for months on end.

Most foreign volunteers and supporters fall within the mid-ranges of what social scientists call "the normal distribution" in terms of psychological attributes like empathy, compassion, idealism, and wanting mostly to help rather than hurt other people. They are mostly youth in transitional stages in their lives: students, immigrants, between jobs or mates, having left or about to leave their native family and looking for a new family of friends and fellow travelers with whom they can find significance. Most have had no traditional religious education, and are often "born again" into a socially tight, ideologically narrow but world-spanning sense of religious mission. Indeed, it is when those who do practice religious ritual are expelled from the mosque for expressing radical political beliefs, that the move to violence is most likely.

And here's where it gets interesting:

As one young woman from the Paris banlieu of Clichy-sur-Bois told us, she like so many others she hangs out with, feels neither French nor Arab, and because she will always be looked on suspiciously, she will choose the Caliphate to help create a homeland where Muslims can pool their resources, be strong again, and live in dignity.

But the popular notion of a "clash of civilizations" between Islam and the West is woefully misleading. Violent extremism represents not the resurgence of traditional cultures, but their collapse, as young people unmoored from millennial traditions flail about in search of a social identity that gives personal significance and glory. This is the dark side of globalization. They radicalize to find a firm identity in a flattened world: where vertical lines of communication between the generations are replaced by horizontal peer-to-peer attachments that can span the globe. Young people whose grandparents were Stone Age animists in Sulawesi, far removed from the Arab world, told me they dream of fighting in Iraq or Palestine in defense of Islam.

Because that's pretty much the explanation for the rise of fundamentalism beginning in the early 20th century.  It was a reaction to German biblical scholarship, which represented a collapse of tradition. But it was a collapse of tradition that hit home for many Americans (where Christian fundamentalism got started).    And the unspoken truth here is that "globalization" is pretty much a one-way street, a return to what has never really gone away in Western culture:  the supremacy of Rome, the tolerance of other cultures and religions as long as they show fealty to Caesar:  whether Caesar is a person who embodies Roman values and virtues, or Caesar is just an ideal symbolizing Western virtues and values, like capitalism or the free market.  As long as it's first Western, and primarily white, it's what the globe needs.  All other identities are to be flattened out.

And people who object are just objectively unreasonable.....

1968 & 2015: the more things change....

 So wrong, so wrong, but we've been down so long; and we had to make somebody listen....

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Thousand-Year Picnic

This is oddly funny, considering what an atheist Stephen Hawking is.  But he's absorbed the cultural interest in 1000 year increments, now deciding that by the start of the next millennium, we're done for, we're done for!

“We must continue to go into space for the future of humanity,” he said. “I don’t think we will survive another 1,000 years without escaping beyond our fragile planet.”

 “I want to share my excitement and enthusiasm about this quest, so remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet,” he continued. 

To be honest my first thought there is Elysium, because "humanity" almost always excludes, at least in the current iteration, those who are not fortunate enough to be white upper class Americans or Europeans.  But that would be a more serious concern if this were a more serious proposition.  Aside from the sheer absurdity of finding planets to live on and then moving humanity there en masse, the very time line of "1000 years" puts this whole proposition into the realm of the religious and apocalyptic, not in the realm of the brief history of time.

Let's start with the idea we can colonize another planet, and eventually "save" humanity by moving people there.  It's the same idea Elon Musk has, and there is already a minor stirring of protest against it.  That complaint, however, has more to do with "Elysium" than it does with the logistical problems.

The Elon Musk idea floating about is to build a colony on Mars out of pods that would look something like the picture above.  This idea is comparable, apparently, to Europeans coming to the Americas in the 16th century.  Except the Europeans didn't have to bring food, water, shelter, and air, in short an entire biosphere, with them.  And they found people here who could help them grow the foods they were unfamiliar with, in a climate they were unfamiliar with, especially when many of them weren't farmers themselves.

Who is gonna help us on Mars?  And has anybody ever thought of the wisdom of sending some farmers along?

The slightest mechanical or physical weakness in the artificial environment, and everyone on Mars dies.  The least impairment in the food supply, and everybody dies. And how do we know they are dead?  Radio silence?  And what do we do about it?  There isn't even a ship, yet, with enough payload capacity to lift the equipment and people needed to start a Martian colony.  It isn't imagined that a ship will be built with capacity to return payload from Mars, a la the Lunar Module and Command Module of the Apollo moon missions.  How does this colony exist without constant resupply from Earth? And frankly, who pays for that?  Elon Musk?

Besides, at what point does the miracle occur, and the colony begin terraforming Mars?  Because that's pretty much the only way we leave the "cradle" and survive on another planet; by making it into Earth, I mean.

I know our popular American history says rugged individualists ventured across the Mississippi and on and on until they hit the Pacific coast with no thought of culture or amenities or anything but "freedom," but it just ain't so.  Culture and art and even opera and Shakespeare traveled across the continent as rapidly as any group of people in any location could manage to make it happen.  They longed for art and culture the way we do now.  Jf all you can possibly do is exist, exist within a tiny environment with no hope of any sustained contact with Earth, and without human culture, again:  is that a life worth living?  Or is it a fate worse than death?

Setting aside the perfectly legitimate concerns about social justice in the "who goes to Mars and beyond?" issue, does this whole really make sense to anybody?  And if so:  why?  And is mere existence the only value human beings hold?  Because if it is, we might as well go now in a mass suicide.

And to dig a bit deeper into the whole question of feasibility, what is "terraforming" and how do we do it?  With giant nuclear reactor engines, as in "Aliens"?  With trees and Johnny Appleseed, as in The Martian Chronicles?   One solution is as grounded in hard science as the other.  And whence come the materials to make this technology which more materials and technology will then ship to planets which can be terraformed?  (So far as I can tell, Mars is the only viable candidate in the solar system, and it may be too far from the Sun.)  And what do you use?  Do those nuclear reactors generate the microbes and bacterium necessary for life?  Do they generate the entire eco-sphere upon which human life depends? Returning earthworms to the American continent, and bringing in bees, literally transformed the agriculture of this continent.  E.O. Wilson tells us how important ants, in their various species, are to the planet.  Will we transport species of ants and worms and insects to Mars?  If not, how will we hope to terraform it?

And why 1000 years?  What's so important about that deadline?

When I studied the Hebrew scriptures we saw repeated figures like "40 days and 40 nights," and "40 years in the wilderness."  It was explained to us these were not literal numbers drawn from a Julian calendar, but rather expressions of long passages of time.  Sort of like saying "in 1000 years."  1000 years ago was the Middle Ages in Europe.  We are fond of saying there have been great advances in civilization since then.  1000 years before that, Europe was dominated by Rome.  Much as we have supposedly advanced, we still look to Rome as our model for many things; things like who is worthy to go into space, who is worthy among humanity to be the "future" of humanity.

Generally, as it was 2000 years ago, it's the Roman citizens and the people closest to Rome.  Anybody really imagining we're going to send Australian aborigines and the "untouchables" of India to colonize Mars?  Maybe to be our servants once we get established there, because our social systems still depend on exploitation, and what better model than to bring the exploited with us for just that purpose.

I mean, really, in 2000 years, has the social order really changed that much?

The first millennium was supposed to bring the return of Christ and the end of time.  When that didn't happen, Y2K was going to usher in our technological doom.  When that didn't happen, we will now use up the earth's resources and, hungry locusts that we are and apparently must continue to be, we will have to find new solar systems to exploit.  And we have to hurry; this third 1000 year mark is the charm.

Or the doom.  Well, Hawking is a scientist, so it must be true!  Right?

Saturday, April 25, 2015

A Saturday Confession

So today we get two posts at Salon on Religion (no surprise).  Neither from Amanda Marcotte, however.

One argues that Dawkins and the TV fundies are plying the same illegitimate nonsense.  Coincidentally, I found my copy of Karen Armstrong's book The Case for God (I think that's the title; it's in another room) that I never read and so started reading, and she spends some pages making essentially the same argument for religion and against reductionists like Dawkins as you'll find today in the Salon article.

The howler monkeys will have none of it; won't even engage the topic.   Instead, it's the usual shrieking and howling about "religion" (a term they define as narrowly and negatively as possible) and "New Atheists" (a label they despise) and "evidence" (a term never defined). A perfect example of pearls before swine.

The other is an excerpt from a book by a UCC pastor and professor in OKC.  The title sounded like it would tie in rather nicely with some observations about nuns by Fr. McBrien here.  Sadly, no; it's mostly a complaint that the church ain't what it used to be, popularity wise, immediately after WWII (our only historical touchstone, being as it still glows within recent memory, and ahistory is the attitude toward history or all good, red-blooded Americans.)  None of the facts he rather glibly cites about declining importance of the church is any different from what could have been, and was being, said about the church 50 years ago (literally), or has been said every decade since up to this one.  It, too, drew more ignorant howler monkeys.

I'm out.  When Karen Armstrong is a breath of fresh air, I've been in the jungle of intertoob comments so long I've gone native and lost any sense of what civilization is.  This I can't continue to do.  The swine eat the pearls and then turn and trample me.  Why spend any more time slopping them? (At Salon, I mean, not elsewhere.)

Gonna feel good to start living up to this resolution.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Nothing at all new under the sun

“Thus did a handful of rapacious citizens come to control all that was worth controlling in America. Thus was the savage and stupid and entirely inappropriate and unnecessary and humorless American class system created. Honest, industrious, peaceful citizens were classed as bloodsuckers, if they asked to be paid a living wage. And they saw that praise was reserved henceforth for those who devised means of getting paid enormously for committing crimes against which no laws had been passed. Thus the American dream turned belly up, turned green, bobbed to the scummy surface of cupidity unlimited, filled with gas, went bang in the noonday sun.”

― Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, 1965*

*If you are thinking this post is primarily an excuse to post these two gifs; you're right.  The movie comes out the weekend of my daughter's birthday, and she wants to go see it.  That's my excuse, and I'm stickin' to it!

"No one likes us, I don't know why...."

I don't usually do this, but I don't usually come across this kind of data:*

This, for example, is what Richard Reid said in court while he was being allowed to live.

I further admit my allegiance to Osama bin Laden, to Islam, and to the religion of Allah. With regards to what you said about killing innocent people, I will say one thing. Your government has killed 2 million children in Iraq. If you want to think about something, against 2 million, I don't see no comparison.Your government has sponsored the rape and torture of Muslims in the prisons of Egypt and Turkey and Syria and Jordan with their money and with their weapons. I don't know, see what I done as being equal to rape and to torture, or to the deaths of the two million children in Iraq. So, for this reason, I think I ought not apologize for my actions. I am at war with your country. I'm at war with them not for personal reasons but because they have murdered more than, so many children and they have oppressed my religion and they have oppressed people for no reason except that they say we believe in Allah.

And this is what Ramzi Yousef said in court while he was being allowed to live.

"Yes, I am a terrorist and proud of it as long as it is against the U.S. government."

And this is what Zacarias Moussaoui said in court while he was being allowed to live.

"God save Osama bin Laden — you will never get him...You have branded me as a terrorist or a criminal or whatever," he said. "Look at yourselves. I fight for my belief."
It was just easier to leave Mr. Pierce's comments in there, to identify the speakers.  What struck me was not the reasoning on display here; violence is no excuse for violence, I don't condone an eye for an eye.  What struck me is how reasonable these speeches are, especially in the light of 9/11 and the reasons we went to war in Afghanistan and Iraq.  "Reasonable," it turns out, isn't all that relative.

I'm also struck by the fact that while there is mention of Muslims and Islam, there's no mention of the Koran.  I'm constantly being told the Koran is the reason all Muslims are crazed terrorists bent on death to the infidel.  But in the longest speech, no reference to the Koran, no mention of fundamental tenets of Islam; just a catalogue of death and a severe statement of resentment.  No mention of infidels, either.

Mostly there seems to be anger; the kind of anger I recognize as the most lingering after-effect of 9/11.

Who knew we had so much in common?

*As a footnote I would add I recently saw this documentary on Frontline, about the current battle for Yemen.  It's not about Islam v. infidels; it's about power.  Pretty much the same reason ISIS is at large in largely powerless Iraq, and spilling over into Syria, where the government is losing control of its territory.

"...and I'm not so sure about thee...."

I'm moved by this, but I want to offer a nudge in another direction, too.

I remember, reading around the blogs on the evening of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado, being shocked at the mean, nasty things being said about people whose lives had been shattered within the hour, many people dying, many people injured, many people losing members of their families, their friends, their homes, their neighborhoods and their communities. The derision, the lack of respect and the judgdementalism on display that night, among alleged liberals, most with a higher education, was a kind of great divide opening up between us, the chasm that I noticed for the first time, the exact difference between liberalism and its opposite.

Not as surprising as it should be.  I've spoken to very decent, good-hearted people who insisted the panhandlers under the overpasses on I-10 here in Houston take in "$30,000.00 a year" (that my conversation partner thought this a princely sum indicates his age more than anything.).  He had no proof of this, but the outrage this number reflected, one he assured me he had from someone who had the experience to have the authority to verify this fiction, was an outrage which calmed his conscience at the fact that our society could produce so many destitute people they were reduced to begging with hand-printed signs.

If they were "rich," then he didn't have to feel concern for them.  I didn't damn him for that; I understood it.  If he respected them, if he regarded them as human beings, as souls made by God undeserving of poverty and such suffering, he would despair because there was so little he could do for them.  He wasn't right to despise them, to discard them as liars living comfortably off the money they begged (rather than doing "legitimate" work, begging somehow being "easier" than holding down a job with an employer); but he was doing it to salve his conscience.  He was doing it so despair wouldn't overwhelm him.

If I condemn him for that, I have to condemn myself, too.  Too often we condemn others so as to avoid condemning ourselves.  If we open the springs of our heart, I often think, we don't know how we'd close them again.  We don't know who we'd be if we didn't draw boundaries around ourselves, declaring some in and some out.  We don't know who we'd be if we didn't insist on others defining us, by defining them as beyond our pale, beyond our reach, beyond our concern.

"It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts." If there was ever a worth while sentence summing up the absolute prerequisite for any kind of liberalism, for any kind of democracy, that would be it. It is worth everything that I've ever read from the hands of Jefferson or Madison and fully as essential as any of the best that came from Abraham Lincoln. America lost that in the past century and more. It's the reason we have devolved into a corporate oligarchy in which Barack Obama is far more the servant of the oil industry than he is of The People, the reason that The People tolerated having George W. Bush and Dick Cheney imposed on us by a corrupt Supreme Court and an even more corrupt press.
No, it isn't possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect; which is the whole point of refusing to extend our respect to them.  But this is not new; 'twas ever thus.  Mother Jones famously lead the "Children's Crusade" to Teddy Roosevelt's summer home in New York state, when TR was President.  She wanted the President to see the children who were forced to labor in dangerous factories, often on the graveyard shift with little adult supervision, poor wages, and in great danger to their lives and bodies.  TR turned them away.  His cousin FDR would finally pass legislation regarding child labor only as a means to clear the way for unemployed adults to take those jobs.  Today we are appalled when Newt Gingrich says elementary school children should work as janitors to pay for their schooling or their "free" lunch.  No one was appalled when TR told Mother Jones to get lost.  No one stains TR's reputation with that event, even today.

As recent legal scholars have pointed out, the Supreme Court has always been a blockage in the national pipeline of progressivism (such as that pipeline ever was).  The Warren Court was the aberration, not the norm.  I've rather lost interest in the "wisdom" of Thomas Jefferson, simply because he never did anything out of charity, never proposed any law or scheme of thought or even eloquent 18th century sound-bite to relieve by one matchstick's worth, the burden on the poor, the outcast, the marginalized.  I try not to judge Jefferson for this, so much as put him in perspective.  His opinions on religion, his "Bible," are not even a curiosity to me anymore.  They are obstacles; I step around them.  Praise him?  For what?  For perpetuating stereotypes about the natives here ("He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.")  For being an unrepentant owner of other human beings?  For the Louisiana Purchase ?  (well, that got us Louisiana and New Orleans, I can't really fault him for that.)  He had his intellectual points, but I'm not terribly impressed with what he did for his fellow human beings.

Our country is broken because the The People are broken and discouraged. It won't be fixed by cynicism, fashion and the pursuit of status at the expense of other people, not in the country, not in international competition. It certainly won't be fixed by becoming more the serfs of the international oligarchs.
It is broken, but it has always been broken.  As I had occasion to say at a funeral awhile back, quoting Leonard Cohen, "There are cracks, cracks in everything; that's how the light gets in."  We surround ourselves with walls, in order to protect us; and then we wonder at how deep the darkness is.

More and more I am convinced that the heart of Christianity is not doctrine, but compassion; compassion expressed first and foremost through hospitality.  Paul didn't convert people to Christianity via the letter to the Romans; he did it establishing house churches. "House" in this case doesn't mean the single-family residence we think of today.  A residence was also a place of business and consisted of a very extended family connected to a benefactor upon whom others depended.  Social lines were stratified, and children, in the Victorian phrase, were "seen and not heard."  As the British upper class did later, the Roman model was not to dine en famille, but segregated by age and social class.   Servants didn't dine with masters, children didn't dine with parents. Imagine the table at "Downton Abbey" surrounded by all the staff, the family, and even the toddlers.  That was the eukaristo that Paul's house church celebrated:  slaves and masters, parents and children, bosses and employees, all dining as equals.  Small wonder, as TC pointed out in comments below, that Crossan notes how important food was, is, in the gospels; and why a common meal, which eventually became a very ritualized meal, is still central to Christian worship.

If the People are broken and discouraged, surely this is the antidote.  In the movie I mentioned sometime back, Kevin Costner's character finally connects with his athletes when he's invited into the home of one of them, and he shares a meal with the family.  They welcome him, and he in turn becomes equal to them.  In the rest of the movie, every festive and important occasion or point in the story, involves sharing a meal with a wider and wider community of athletes and their families.

That, too, is how the light gets in.

If we stand in judgment, as Crossan also pointed out, then we get placed under judgment, too.  The only way out of that cycle is to refuse to judge.  And the simplest way to refuse to judge is to sit at the table together, eating the meal in common, with everyone welcome and no one refused.

Let me put that quote above back in context:

When we accept dismissive judgments of our community we stop having generous hopes for it. We cease to be capable of serving its best interests. The cultural disaster called “dumbing down,” which swept through every significant American institution and grossly impoverished civic and religious life, was and is the result of the obsessive devaluing of the lives that happen to pass on this swath of continent. On average, in the main, we are Christian people, if the polls are to be believed. How is Christianity consistent with this generalized contempt that seems to lie behind so much so-called public discourse? Why the judgmentalism, among people who are supposed to believe we are, and we live among, souls precious to God—300 million of them on this plot of ground, a population large and various enough to hint broadly at the folly of generalization? It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect, or to entertain hopes for them that are appropriate to their gifts. As we withdraw from one another we withdraw from the world, except as we increasingly insist that foreign groups and populations are our irreconcilable enemies. The shrinking of imaginative identification which allows such things as shared humanity to be forgotten always begins at home.

Part of the problem is the "generalized contempt" we have for others, because we think of them in generalities.  My family includes blue-collar workers:  policemen, maintenance workers, the like.  I was reminded how "simple" they were when I visited them recently, meeting in a small church many would consider "conservative" and even "ignorant."  They are good people, kind people, and the people they know are the same.  Not saints, not exemplary by worldly standards, but good nonetheless.  I don't want to elevate them with praise, but they are people worth knowing.  But you have to know them individually.  As a group they fit all manner of categories that other groups would consider inappropriate, in some way.  It would be easy to dismiss them, or people like them, with a generalized contempt; and when I say that, I'm looking in the mirror.

The contempt is, I think, in part the problem of "public discourse."  Such discourse of necessity creates categories.  When Jefferson wrote of the "savages" bedeviling the colonies, he was writing for a European audience who would precisely consider them so.  That contempt made it easier, in later years, to exterminate the natives.  "It is simply not possible to act in good faith toward people one does not respect."  And, equally, it is impossible to respect people one puts in a category for dismissal.  As I've said too often, that's precisely where so many "New Atheists" want to put Christians.  In the extreme, it becomes bigotry.   Bigotry is the ugliest way of withdrawing from one another.

Christianity is simply not consistent with judgment.  "Do not judge, and you will not be judged."  But if we do not judge, how do we know who to respect, who to care for?

Well, yes.  That's the point, isn't it?  Lucy, in Peanuts, once challenged Linus that he didn't love everything in the world, because he couldn't love gila monsters.  Linus replied that if he knew what a gila monster was, he'd love it.  You can't love a gila monster if you don't know what it is.  You cannot love the world; you don't know what it is.  You can only love those you know.  Or, as Voltaire wisely put it:  we must each cultivate our own garden.  You can't love the world; but you can love those you know in the world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

No. 5 is not that easily avoided

Take, eat.  It's not gluten free, but a little nibble couldn't hurt!

Diabetics have to control their diets very carefully.  Those afflicted with celiacs disease have to avoid gluten.  There are other perfectly sensible reasons to avoid certain foods, control your diet, etc.

But do 100 million people in America really have to watch their gluten intake?

Probably not.  This, of course, is a matter of personal choice.  But what's the purpose, except to avoid death?  And what is this fear of death that creates an almost religious faith (i.e., trust) in food?  Is it merely human?

Virtually ever religious tradition has had food taboos and sacred diets. I think part of the reason is that food is something that we have direct control over. It crosses the boundary in a very personal way: we take something outside of our body and put it into our body. Eating is very personal, and it’s easy to invest those kinds of things with religious and ritual significance.
That is certainly why Christianity, alone of all world religions I know of, puts food at the center of its worship.  The Eucharist has been a point of contention since Paul and Peter argued over what to eat and Paul argued with his house churches over how to eat it; but it is still central to worship because "eating is very personal."

What's interesting is that everybody gets upset because some politician somewhere says we have to allow people to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation when it comes to serving wedding guests (which hasn't yet been upheld as legal or denied as unconstitutional) or we have to teach creationism in schools (which hasn't been upheld) or...well, I'm hard pressed to think of a true "victory" that the religious have one (the examples like Hobby Lobby v. Burwell are more like egregious errors by the Court that it will have to rein in, if only because of the bubbling arguments over state RFRA's that are its progeny).  Things are, in other words, in a state of flux.

But nobody is complaining because 100 million people think they can cheat death by cutting out the white bread.  If anything, that's a greater display of superstition and fear of death than any random group of Christians (or Muslims, observant Jews, Hindus, what have you) that I've ever encountered.

It's all about the narrative; the framing.  An expression of faith in reason as the ne plus ultra and only arbiter of human experience is no less a religious expression than putting your money literally where you mouth is by adopting a gluten-free diet because you think you will live longer; or than reciting the Apostle's or Nicene Creed, for that matter.

If you want to mention in comments that you are watching your gluten, or even maintaining a gluten-free diet, I will not argue with you.  I make no judgment, except on those who judge.  There are very small minded people out there who consider the internet their proper domain, and they insist that whatever they damn should be damned in heaven, and whatever they loose should be loosed in heaven.

But don't put it to them that way; they'll get very upset.  No one likes having their faith challenged, you see.

Dazed and Confused

I saw what I did there....

I was reflecting on the veracity, even the "proof", of polls (reading "atheists" constantly insisting on "proof" of God, and batting about "burden of proof" as if they knew what the phrase meant, has put my mind on odd tracks) in response to this post.  That led to the thought that daily life seldom reflects the divisions and acrimony of either politics or polls (two conditions that often appear alike), nor is it all that driven by what the pollsters say is important to us.

Like the latest nonsense from Alternet (via Salon).  It starts, appropriately enough, with a poll about what group Americans dislike the most.  Atheists have lost their No. 1 standing, according to this poll.  How you ever verify that is an interesting question, especially to people who screech "Burden of proof!" whenever you poke them; but leave that aside.  What interests me are the "myths", some of which are so hoary and lame they need life support from, well, Amanda Marcotte, apparently.

Take No. 1:  "There are no atheists in foxholes."  I'm guessing the definition of "myth" here is not the usual rump definition of a folktale that explains natural phenomenon.  I'm beginning to suspect that definition is itself mythological, an invention of the Enlightenment must as the old canard about medieval theologians debating how many angels could dance on the head of a pin was invented during the Renaissance.  How all those stories of Zeus impregnating fair maidens in various physical forms, from a bull to gold coins, explains anything more than the story of Oedipus explains his responsibility for a fate set before his birth, has always been a mystery to me.  But the idea that there are no atheists is foxholes is about as sound a proper observation as the watch found in the field is evidence of God as Creator.

I mean, if that's your idea of myth still being used against atheists, you really need to give up on that idea that atheism is not a religion (myth no. 5), because this one sounds as fictional as the parting of the Red Sea (something no atheist ever brings up, though I learned in seminary that there is no "Red Sea" in Egypt.  There's the Nile, and there's the desert.  Didn't anyone ever wonder where the Red Sea went after the Israelites left?) and as important to your identity as suffering for your, well....beliefs.

There's also the "myth" that atheists are aggressive and rude.  Aside from every atheist you can name as a public figure (including the late Madalyn Murray O'Hair), I can't imagine where this pernicious idea comes from.  (I know I actually read some comments by professed atheists despairing of the tone set for them by Dawkins, but I can't find the link at the moment.  Not all atheists posts on Salon or adhere to the standards set by the New Atheists.)  Ditto myth no. 6, that atheism is dominated by angry white men.  Yes, you can identify the women who wish to be prominent atheists (Ms. Marcotte does), but can anyone name them?  I'm sure this is the fault of the Christian patriarchy; or perhaps President Obama.

Do atheists have a bleak, loveless, and amoral existence (myths 6-9)?  I dunno.  The noisiest ones certainly seem to be profoundly unhappy people;  or at least, among the most cited (Maher; Dawkins; Gillette; Hitchens; Carlin) the most smug and insufferable.  Then again, so are a lot of publicly religious politicians and Christians, so we'll have to call that a draw.

So the last is that atheists are engaged in a war on Christmas.  Honestly, this war on Christmas thing existed (I think it officially ended last winter) on FoxNews.  I never saw evidence of it beyond FoxNews in the real world that wasn't clearly driven by FoxNews.

Which returns me to my original point:  there's the world we all live in; and then there's the world as represented on the intertoobs and cable television (the world represented on broadcast television is another mythology altogether).   One is a very interesting place, full of people of all kinds and demeanors working hard to get on with their lives; and the other is a flaming Nazi gasbag.

Well, I wanted somehow to work that joke and Godwin's law into it, and it was the best I could do.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Cui Bono?

What's really interesting here is the number of people in comments saying this is a situation of rape, pure and simple, because the wife, suffering from Alzheimer's, couldn't possibly consent to sexual intercourse.

And they all know that because.....?  Well, from what Mr. Pierce quotes, from this:

Michelle Dornbier, a social worker at the center, and Dr. John Boedeker, Mrs. Rayhons's family doctor, testified on Friday about her scores on a test to assess memory and orientation. In May 2014, she scored zero, unable to recall the words "sock," "bed" and "blue." But Ms. Dornbier acknowledged that Mrs. Rayhons "was always pleased to see Henry." And Dr. Boedeker acknowledged that "intimacy is beneficial for dementia patients." Ms. Dornbier testified that the Concord Care Center allows consensual sex between residents. But she said that on May 15, 2014, family members including Mr. Rayhons were given a "care plan" establishing simple routines for Mrs. Rayhons, including limiting outings with Mr. Rayhons mostly to church on Sunday.

Which comes, in Mr. Pierce's telling, after this:

It is rare, possibly unprecedented, for such circumstances to prompt criminal charges. Mr. Rayhons, a nine-term Republican state legislator, decided not to seek another term after his arrest. There is no allegation that Mrs. Rayhons resisted or showed signs of abuse. And it is widely agreed that the Rayhonses had a loving, affectionate relationship, having married in 2007 after each had been widowed. They met while singing in a church choir.
Emphasis added.

So this entire case is going to court because Mrs. Rayhon has advanced Alzheimer's, and because (according, again, to comments) the daughters are mad at their step-father, and perhaps a prosecuting attorney took his duties a bit too zealously (which happens in the area of family law and relationships far more often than it should, apparently).

There are considerations in the justice system other than punishment and the rigid adherence to the law no matter what (in this case, no matter the facts, for example; which we don't know, yet).  Justice is not just punishment meted out by the law to all and sundry and not every case of sexual intercourse where consent is a clouded question is a case of rape.  Does it matter if the Rayhons were married, or just if they were in a "loving, affectionate relationship"?  Because the people determined to prosecute (if not convict) Mr. Rayhon for rape seem to have decided sex is always desire and impulse and mindless animal behavior and has very little to do with love and the expressions of love.

Which is the first sad point here.  The second is the legal point I started to address:  is this the best use of the legal resources of the state of Iowa?  Is it the best use of the prosecutor's energies, the court's time, the jury's time, and the legal system in general?  Or is a prosecutor, like some kind of legal machine, required to try any case which might be criminal, to the fullest extent of the law?

Who benefits?  What, in short, is the point?

Steve Allen wrote a story about people gathering in a football stadium to direct their hatred at a prisoner on the stage on the field, much as a microwave oven would direct microwaves into a piece of meat.  The point of the story was the parable of how willingly people would hate the stranger, would punish whom they were told to despise, would bring to bear on the unknown person all the animosity they could muster, and use his suffering and agony (he's described as dancing around the stage like a bug on a hot griddle, until he finally falls over, barely twitching) to fuel their hatred directed at him.

More and more on the internet do I see examples in real life of the parable Allen was trying to tell.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Things that make you say "Hmmmmmm....."

This is interesting:

The “unaffiliated” group is rising much faster in North America than in Europe. Europe is projected to move from 19% to 23% of its population unaffiliated while North America would move from 17% to 26% (16% growth for Europe and 89% growth for US). Only in the Asia Pacific area is there expected to be a decline in the unaffiliated at 2% (82).

But it’s also not clear if being “unaffiliated” really means the same thing in the United States as elsewhere. Take that earlier number of 68% of the “unaffiliated” believing in God or a higher power in the United States.

That drops to 30% in France (233). According to that previous Pew research, one reason more people identify as “unaffiliated” now is that people who used to skip church and not really believe anything in particular simply felt a social pressure to identify with a religion anyway. Now, more people feel comfortable simply naming what they were already doing before.

Not because it gives a good definition of "unafflliated" (too often defined as "atheist" on the intertoobs), but because the difference in affiliation between Europe (supposedly all "atheist" and "post-Christian" according, again, to the intertoobs) and the US just now is only 2%.  Yes, Pew predicts it will rise and the percentage in the US will exceed Europe's, but that hasn't happened yet; and 2% is pretty much the margin of error with any poll.

So while religious expression is very different in America than in Europe, the level of religious affiliation is pretty much the same on both continents.  But Europe is full of atheists, and America is overrun with superstitious crackpots.

Isn't that right?

Besides, read down the article; the fastest growing religious population in North America is not "None," it is:  "Other."  Which pretty much ties in with the polls showing a steady rise in religious affiliation since the early 20th century.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Whose Season is it, anyway?

Because, sure, that's what happens:

“I believe that if the Supreme Court, as expected, enshrines gay marriage as a constitutional right, I believe it’s truly going to be, to use your phrase, ‘open season’ on Christians and those who believe in traditional marriage,” Jeffress said. “Once you make gay marriage a civil right then anyone who opposes it is guilty of a civil rights violation.”

Bob Jones University outlawed interracial dating among its students; well, until they lost their federal funding and student loans, grants, etc.  They finally gave up and changed their policy, thus giving them renewed access to federal monies.  But nobody associated with the university was arrested for a "civil rights violation."

Maybe this is just the difference between being a pastor and being a lawyer.

I remember the story of a church, too, which forced out a lay couple (just members, not clergy or anything) because they were an interracial couple.  If I recall correctly, they refused to allow the marriage to take place in their church.  Despite Loving v. Virginia, no one arrested the church members or the pastor; the church was just shamed.  Whether or not they relented on their racist policy, I don't recall.  But again:  no one was jailed.

So the "open season" has never come.  Which will be good for the rabbits and the ducks.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The future of Christianity is not hipsters

It's David. No, seriously:

There's something very traditional here, with the idea that reason comes from God (see, e.g., Aquinas) and so leads to faith (obviously the pre-Pietist era of Christianity). But the idea that robots will be smarter, and therefore more Christian?  Well, you know, if you can process all information on earth simultaneously, imagine the sermon you could write!


Really, it's just too funny.

Update:  I was going to leave this in comments, but when I finished it I realized it needed to be up here:

There is huge pressure on Protestant pastors to identify and get out ahead of the "Next Big Thing." At one time Joel Osteen was identified as the "Best Preacher in America," so everyone needed to follow his example; or we needed to be a "Purpose Driven Church," a la Rick Warren; or we needed to be the next Mars Hill, or now the "hipster" pastor.

So the leap to robot pastors is not really a surprise; not to me. It's just the logic of the relentless pressure to be "relevant." Every one of those "successes" I mentioned is actually no more absurd or dehumanizing or reductionist about the Gospel than the idea of robot preachers.

It's all a matter of looking for the "silver bullet," the "One" that will save us all. Which is the real irony.....

*I have to be pedantic enough to point out this is classic Reformed theology, with the sermon (the "Word") at the center of worship, as opposed to the Eucharist, the sacrament.  Too Catholic, ya know. And the beat goes on, with a robo-drummer......

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hail to thee, our Alma Mater....

Hillary Clinton is visiting a community college today.  I wonder if if this topic will come up:

Over the past several decades, colleges and universities have come to rely on adjuncts in order to keep down education costs and tuition. According to the American Association of University Professors, "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments."

That simple fact usually leads to some kind of discussion about tuition costs and what students are actually paying for.  TPM cited the same statistic and made much the same argument about the poverty of adjunct teachers.   Interestingly the comments at both Slate and TPM overlooked this little fact, focussing instead on TA's (full disclosure, I was a TA for a year in graduate school, and completely in charge of the class; not just a guy handing out papers to an auditorium and grading them in some basement for the professor.  I had an office and office hours.  As an adjunct I'm still in charge of the class, get paid little better than I was as a TA, and don't have an office or office hours.  Most of my students call me "professor," not realizing I am not one and never will be.).

It's the comments where things get really interesting.  The top comment at Slate bemoans the fact any sympathy is being extended to impoverished adjuncts because "they don't have to do that job."  Because, you know, no one really needs to teach.  I mean, who needs teachers, right?

If I have to respond further to that kind of "reasoning," I can only assume you stumbled into this blog by mistake.

The comments at TPM focus on TA's and how this is just a pushing aside, if anything, of that kind of teaching.  It's the "more than half of all faculty hold part-time appointments" that disturbs me, for reasons no one addresses (well, why should they?  What do we need teachers for, amirite?).

If we are replacing more than half of our college faculty (which is well beyond the usual assumption that this is an English major's problem, English majors being emblematic of the degrees we don't really need, because we should just scrap the liberal arts anyway.  I mean, it's so medieval!) with adjuncts, we are gaining teachers who have stopped doing research when they got their degrees, and whose knowledge of the field is frozen in the year they graduated.  Not frozen in stone, but pretty well trapped in the past, which recedes more and more every year.  Adjuncts don't get paid to research or to keep up with knowledge in their field.  They get paid to stand in front of a class and to grade papers (grades being the most important part of a student's life, apparently.  I never hear from my department chair about my teaching unless it's a student complaining about the final grade in the course.).  They get paid to teach from a textbook and use a curriculum assigned to them.  They don't get paid to hold office hours (I still have memories of talking, in offices, with deans and professors; I did this from college through graduate school and into seminary.  It was, so I thought, one of the primary purposes of "higher education."  Not so anymore.), so they don't get paid to talk to students.

This is an interestingly awkward problem, because you cannot offer help to a student by discussing their academic work in a hallway (it's practically a violation of FERPA to do so anyway).  FERPA won't allow me to discuss their work via e-mail, and I don't want them having my private phone number.  I have no office, no office hours, and I'm paid by the course.  The less work I do, the better, because the number of courses I can teach is limited, I eat into my hourly rate when I do more than teach and grade papers; and I'm not going to arrange for a corner table at the local Starbucks 3 hours a week.

I never had a class in my major that was taught by a TA.  This was intentional on my part.  I went to college to learn from professors, not from recent graduates.  Now that is becoming harder and harder to do, and the result is we are eating our seed corn.  You cannot teach what you do not know, and slowly but surely we are turning colleges into high school classes.  Actually, high school teachers are, by and large, required to do continuing education to teach in public schools.  Adjuncts just need to have a graduate degree in their field; anything else they do is on their dime, and does nothing to improve their chances of getting full-time, much less tenure track, work.  Nor does it increase the per-class payment they receive by one dime.

So we are telling the adjuncts the field they work in is less and less important to academia; that their teaching skills are less and less valuable to society; and that what needs to be taught can be narrowed more and more.  We are shrinking the knowledge base, in other words; adjuncts who know only what they remember from graduate school (staying current in the field is for people who get paid for such information; adjuncts get paid to be warm bodies) are passing on diminished knowledge to people who eventually will be going to graduate school themselves and, at some point, teaching in those schools; many of them as adjuncts.

It's a noose; and we're tightening it.  In the name of what, exactly?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Sandbox logic and the limits of discourse

Yeah, I know; and considering the source, for all I know it's Photoshopped.  
But if you read the article below, the one worth reading, this picture actually makes a kind of sense.  
Besides, is provocative, so there's that....

I am a creature of habit, which means I click over to Salon (having given up, finally, on clicking over to Baby Blue), where they daily run claptrap which draws fools like shit draws flies.  I know better.  But it's become a reflex.

Most of the foolishness centers on conflating Christianity with stupidity and all Muslims with ISIS.  A favorite trope, indeed, is how benighted and bloodthirsty and purely evil all Muslims are (and how much Christians want to shove religion down every Americans throat.  Not sure why that homosexual imagery is so pervasive and persistent, but there we are.).

And if you deny it, you just draw more attention from the peanut gallery, who engage in the sandbox logic of "IS TOO!"  "IS NOT!" about which wars were inspired by religion.  Apparently Hitler saw his quest for a Third Reich as a holy crusade, because "IS TOO!!",  and Stalin never killed anybody in the name of atheism, because "IS NOT IS NOT IS NOT!!!!!!"

So this comes as a welcome relief, and a cool metaphorical glass of water.

I gotta clean my browser history....

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The nature and destiny of the "unpleasantness between the states"

I've been looking at posts from, frankly, "Yankees," about the anniversary of Appomattox and what was given up by the "North" to appease the "South."  I say "Yankees" because the slant is obviously in favor of Northern sentiments over Southern ones. Which is not to say they should be more amendable to the execrable history of racism in America; but quit trying to imply, at the same time, that racism would have faded sooner had the U.S. been less conciliatory to the states of the former Confederacy.  I'd always understood Lincoln's point in going to war was to preserve the Union, not to punish the secessionists.

In other words, let's not make the mistake of Creon and try to leave the dead on the battlefield for the birds and the dogs, again.

I'm not going to name names because I don't want to start some kind of fight, here.  I don't rise to defend "the noble Cause" or the "heritage of the South."  That heritage was brutality and racism and greed and almost everything ugly about human society.  Yeah, I've seen "Django Unchained," and yeah, it struck me as being as good a representation of the pre-War South as any fictional presentation could be.  I accept Tarentino's vision as valid, at least for the sake of argument here.

Granted, I learned a different version of history growing up in Texas.  I didn't know this, for example; but I'm hardly surprised, either.  My sympathies are actually with those who don't want some of the slave states back in the Union, especially because Texas left with the Confederacy a short time after petitioning to be a state.  Texas took great pride in requiring all public school students to learn Texas history when I was a child; but I never learned that the battle at the Alamo was not for freedom, so much as it was for the ability to own slaves.  Seems Mexico had outlawed slavery, and the Texicans wanted to emulate Louisiana and points immediately east, so they resented being cut off from that kind of opportunity.  To this day, Texas has the highest percentage of persons living on minimum wage (which is not higher in Texas than the Federal floor), and our State leaders still brag about how many people in Texas are employed.

Not how many people in Texas are able to make a decent living.  Low wages are attractive to big employers, donchaknow....

But Reconstruction was not a period where the North did all it could to leave the South alone.  The town of Brenham, not far from where I sit, has an historical site in its downtown now (this is new.  Lots of Texas towns are doing it, and most are really good.  Even the history at the Alamo has greatly improved, now that they've removed the huge painting showing Davey John Wayne Crockett boldly making a last stand in a scene from the movie, a scene which has nothing to do with history.  The painting was a gift from Wayne after he shot his film there; it would have been bad manners not to leave it up for a decade or so.).  It details the history of the small town, including occupation by Union soldiers during Reconstruction.  Granted, racism still abounded in Texas (it was strong until my early adulthood; it has abated, somewhat, but seems determined to recur across the country).  But the display notes the harshness of the Union officers; men who had little regard for the Texans and not that much concern for the races in general.  The central event was a fire downtown which the Union troops did nothing to quell, and they may even have enjoyed watching the destruction.

It wasn't, in other words, the imposition of just order under the mythical Abraham Lincoln or the ideal envisioned by Dr. King, only to be trashed by Southerners who refused to bend.  It didn't make the town happy about the "occupation."

I'll grant Southerners were not willing to put aside the culture they had known from before the war; but neither did Europe give up its various cultures after a century of war (the 19th), or another half-century of war (the 20th).  It really wasn't until the fall of the USSR that Europe finally began to recover from its nationalism, but looking at Greece and Eastern Europe, one has to wonder how much has finally changed.  The Greeks still think the Germans who them reparations, for example.  And some countries can't decide (not just Ukraine) whether they want to be European or Russian.  That's a discussion that's been going on in Europe for centuries; and the beat goes on....

None of which is to justify the acts of Southerners in the late 19th century, or through the 20th century.  I'm just asking for a bit of perspective.  The United States was not full of angels in paradise trying to reform the demons in the hell of the American South.  Too much would have been asked to require the South to become like New England in the space of 14 years.  150 years later and we're still struggling with racial issues in America, from New York City to Ferguson, Missouri.  And I'm not really willing to let anybody forget what happened when Boston schools had to integrate in the late '70's, nor that the death of Brown v. Board came at the hands of a Supreme Court never dominated by Southern judges.

There is plenty of ugliness in American history.  I have no sympathies for the parties who, sometime in the '50's put a plaque up in the Texas Capitol arguing that the War between the States was not about slavery (at least it's on the back of a column in a poorly visited public area.  You have to look for it to find it.  I'd rather the State had the guts to take it down.).  But the best response to the attempted (again!) revision of American history is not to say, or just imply, that things would have been better but for the South.

Things would have been better had we never started the transatlantic slave trade, but while Britons never, never, never shall be slaves, they had no problem making slaves of others.  That was a profitable business for almost everyone, and the first thing America really learned was:  it's money that matters.

And it's violence that protects it; still two very American truths we should spend far more time being ashamed of; or at least being critical of.*

*I have to say this sounds more recent than historical, and a further proof that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  This history also indicates the problems of trying to reconcile two disparate visions of governance, even of "America" (which also sounds distinctly contemporary, especially in our foreign policy debates; except we can't blame religion for the struggles in America).  The Southern take on Reconstruction is still formed as much by the occupation by soldiers as it is by the desire to continue the oppression of former slaves by groups like the KKK.