Saturday, December 22, 2007

Opinion Makers

Regularly, celebrities voice their opinions on social and political issues. Movie stars, popular singers, and professional athletes tell us whom we should vote for, and what we should think about cultural questions. But who are these people? Why are they qualified to tell us what to think?

Well, let's look at some examples. Exactly how much education do these self-appointed "experts" have?

BARBARA STREISAND - no education after graduating from high school
CHER - finished 8th grade, never attended high school
MARTIN SHEEN - flunked entrance exam for Dayton University
JESSICA LANGE - attended college for the first week of her freshman year, but failed to finish a semester
ALEC BALDWIN - dropped out of college
JULIA ROBERTS - no education after graduating from high school
SEAN PENN - no education after graduating from high school
ED ASNER - no education after graduating from high school
MIKE FARRELL - no education after graduating from high school
GEORGE CLOONEY - dropped out of college
SUSAN SARANDON - B.A. in drama

Those listed above have not only told Americans what to think about politics and politicians, but have even ventured to call their political opponents "stupid"!

Monday, December 17, 2007

Into the Mainstream

It's not unusual or surprising to read that a conservative politician said, "most Americans, too, are anti-gay marriage and anti-abortion." That's what we expect, although the wording could be revised: "in favor of normal marriage and pro-life."

But it is different when those words make it into the mainstream: they come from a national newspaper columnist, whose work appears in middle-of-the-road, and even some left-wing, newspaper.

He continues: "in times when football players are murdered in their homes, when Christmas shoppers are gunned down in Heartland shopping malls, more Americans might well be thinking: President John Adams was right when he said that "we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion ... our constitution was made for a moral and religious people."

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sex, Love, and Marriage

Although we think of the three words in the title of this posting as having some general relationship, it was much less so in certain other cultures.

In ancient pagan societies (Babylon, Egypt, Sumer, Akkad, etc.), marriage had very little to do with love. It was a very businesslike arrangement. Women were either sold into the marriage, or it was arranged for them by their fathers or other male relatives. For the female, the main benefits - if any - of marriage were that she had a man who was legally obligated to provide some of the necessities of life for her and the children, and that the marriage legitimized her status as a mother, and the husband provided some protection from both physical danger and social disgrace.

For the male, marriage ensured a well-managed household, and a woman who was essentially obligated to be his companion.

How different from our modern conception of marriage! We consider marriage to be a voluntary agreement to share a lifetime together: an agreement in which both parties respect and care about each other, a union in which a man and a woman want to provide good things to each other. When did this change happen?

It started long ago. The Hebrews seem to have been the first to clearly state and emphasize the concept of marital love. One of the the world's oldest love poems, stressing the union of two lives, is the product of the ancient Hebrew culture. It goes by various names: The Song of Solomon, the Song of Songs, the Canticle of Canticles. While the Babylonian husbands were apparently busy ignoring or beating their wives, the Hebrew men were bringing flowers to theirs.

But how did this idea of marriage as love spread to other cultures? As with many Hebrew ideas, the Christian faith spread this concept around the globe. So much of what is often considered to be Christian is actually Hebrew.

Before Christianity was introduced into Europe, the polytheistic natives there treated their women no better than their counterparts in the Ancient Near East, buying, selling, and beating them. Now, modern European culture is thoroughly influenced by the Hebrew notion that marriage is about serving one's spouse, not about controlling one's spouse; and, contrary to all stereotypes, the Christian faith celebrates sex as a beautiful and noble expression of love between husband and wife.

Was there ever a time or place in which people taught that sex was sinful? Christianity has never taught that sex between a properly married couple was sinful, if they were showing care, respect, and affection for one another. There have been some misguided individuals who thought that sex was sinful, but the Christian faith has always pointed to such an idea as an error. Sex outside of marriage (either premarital or extra-marital), on the other hand, has always been considered inappropriate, because of the often disastrous consequences for those involved.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Future Hope

Professor Moltmann lives in Germany. His childhood was spent in the era of atheism shortly before and during Hitler's reign. Only as a prisoner at the end of the war did he begin to seriously study about God. Since then, he has been a professor of theology at several universities.

He explains the change in terms of time: his early years of atheism and Nazism were focused on the past and the present, he says, but had no clear vision for the future. Yes, Hitler's plans for an empire gave a notion for the short-term future, but the questions which all humans ask were left unanswered: What happens after I die? What happens after the universe ends? An physicists from Newton to Einstein to Hawking tell us that the physical universe will indeed end.

Atheism, says Moltmann, may provide a basis for Hitler's plans of racial supremacy, but it does not provide a foundation for thinking rationally about the distant future. So Moltmann began to think about God.

Moltmann's vision of the next life is that God will "answer the cries of human victims for justice, without simply meting out vengeance on the perpetrators of injustice," as Peter Steinfels summarizes in the New York Times (January 20, 2007). Moltmann's "eschatological vision would not involve the retributive justice of human courts, but" a creative form of justice "which can heal and restore the victims and transform the perpetrators."

Moltmann's view of the end of this universe, and the beginning of the afterlife, "is not reward and punishment, but victory over all that is" evil; it will be "a great day of reconciliation."

According to Moltmann, God is not primarily an angry judge, as he is sometimes depicted, but rather motivated by love for humans, and a desire to forgive them, and to fix the problems of the universe.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The History of Hospitals

Care-giving is rooted in a desire to enhance the well-being of our fellow man. Whether it is through our own need to be cared for or a loved one’s need, at some point in each of our lives we can benefit from this practice.

The art of care-giving began as a family effort and over time became institutionalized. In pre-Christian societies, the infirm were watched over by their family in their own home or they were expelled from the city. The first modern hospital, including a teaching and research department, was documented at the Academy of Gundishapur, and operated by the Persian Christian Church, around A.D. 300-600.

The expansion of the hospital system in Medieval Europe was driven in large part by Christianity. Before Christianity the Romans might care for each other as part of family-based obligations. The Greeks did the same. The First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. ordered the construction of a hospital in every cathedral town in the Roman Empire to care for the poor, sick, widows, and strangers. They were staffed by religious orders and volunteers and were funded by the same.

Although the first hospital in the United States was constructed much later in Philadelphia, Christianity was still the motivating force. Philadelphia grew into the fastest populated city in the 13 colonies and became a melting pot for diseases because of its ports and constant stream of immigrants. With the increasing number of poor suffering from physical illnesses as well as the number of people from all classes suffering from mental illness, Philadelphia became the perfect place for the nation's first hospital.

The Pennsylvania Hospital was established in May 1751, the result of a collaborative effort of Benjamin Franklin and Dr. Thomas Bond, a hometown physician who studied medicine in England and France and became inspired by the thriving hospital system overseas. Franklin was emerging from his youthful flirtation with deism into a text-based spirituality; he authored and published a hymnbook of liturgies and prayers. Out of this mature world-view, he understood the necessity of helping the helpless with no expectation of repayment or reward; hence the desire to found a hospital.

The charter was granted to establish the Pennsylvania Hospital “to care for the sick, poor and the insane,” and the first patient was admitted in February of 1753. The hospital’s seal, the image of the Good Samaritan, was inscribed on the plaque outside as well as the phrase, “Take care of him and I will repay you.”

Although the hospital was created to benefit the community, it was not readily accepted, nor was any subsequent hospital that was built. In fact, most people found them unfamiliar and even frightening. People were used to caring for their sick relatives in their homes, and it wasn't until the “Spanish flu” epidemic in 1918 that people began to realize the appeal that mass care hospitals provided. Further promotion for the cause of hospitals came in 1921 when the editor for a Chicago magazine proposed that hospitals open their doors to the public for one day so the community could come inside and see them. After becoming more familiar with the medical advances employed by hospitals, people accepted them, and on May 12, 1921 America celebrated its first National Hospital Day.

The majority of hospitals serve only medical needs, and lack the philosophical guidance of a larger world-view. Since the late 20th century, more and more hospitals have been funded by the state, health insurances, health organizations, and charities rather than religious orders. Today nearly 6,000 hospitals are in operation with over five million staff members across the United States. According to Hospital Statistics, these hospitals admit almost 37 million patients each year, treat another 117 million in emergency departments, and see another 545 million for other outpatient needs. On any given day, 658,000 patients fill U.S. hospital beds.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Defining Virtue

We have seen that virtue is subject to changing definitions in history: among the Greeks, virtue was based on superiority, and often no attempt was made to disguise ruthless oppression, because precisely that was seen as virtuous - and so Thucydides reports the Athenian delegation speaking to islanders of Melos and threatening them with destruction if they fail to give in to Athenian demands, and so Alexander builds an empire by attacking, without provocation, neighboring countries, causing the deaths of thousands - such behavior was seen by more than a few as virtuous.

Some Romans likewise embraced harshness as virtue - Marcus Aurelius, whose calm Stoic aphorisms tempt one to picture him as a even-tempered sage, spent almost his entire career as emperor, not on a throne, but engaged in bloody and vicious battles, and penned orders for the executions of thousands of innocent men, women, and children, whose only crime was participating the new religion known as Christianity.

After Constantine's example of tolerance, by which he legalized Christianity, and declined to seek revenge by persecuting the pagans who had been persecuting the Christians, we seen a shift in ideas of virtue - respect for human life becomes a central ingredient in the common European notion of virtue.

Yet hints of the old warlike virtue of competitive superiority remain: certainly in the half-Christian, half-pagan epics like Beowulf and the Nibelungenlied, but even in much more modern and post-modern examples: Nietzsche praises the virtue of a man who cruelly exploits any form of weakness in his fellow humans.

In our own time, Hillary Clinton has been praised for "her opportunism, her triangulation, her ethical corner-cutting, her shifting convictions, her secrecy, her ruthlessness." These words, which would be perceived as insults according to the common notion of virtue, are conceived as praise by Maureen Dowd, a supporter of Hillary Clinton, who uttered them. In announcing what she considers to be Clinton's virtues, she describes what most people would call vices: "She is cold-eyed about wanting power and raising money and turning everything about her life into a commodity."

Perhaps Maureen Dowd and Hillary Clinton would be more comfortable with Octavian and Themistocles.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The KKK and the U.S. Senate

Could it be that a current member of the U.S. Senate has a history of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan? Could it be that he was not merely a member, but actually a leader in the KKK, given the title "Kleagle"? Could it be that he would use the "N-word", a hateful racial epithet, in front of a reporter, not once, but twice, in the same interview? And why wouldn't that reporter, eager to make news, report about this?

Because the senator, Robert Byrd, from West Virginia, has some powerful friends: He has been photographed, smiling, with his arm around people like Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, John Edwards, and other leaders in his political party.

To be sure, Senator Byrd claims that he ended his membership in the Klan. Maybe he did, but three years after he claims he stopped his membership, he was still writing letters to the leaders of the KKK, telling them that "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia ... and in every state in the Union." Why would the newspapers and TV media not report to the general public about these facts? Because Senator Byrd is part of the Democratic party, and with friends like Gore, Kerry, Edwards, and the Clintons, no reporter will take him on.

In the senate, he opposed civil rights legislation to ensure equality in the armed forces, and he led a strong opposition and filibuster to the Civil Rights Act, which was aimed at ensuring voting rights for African-Americans, among other things.

David and ... ?

Archaeologists excavating the Philistine city of Gath have uncovered inscriptions with the name "Goliath" visible. The name, like the Philistines themselves, has its roots far away from the Semitic areas of the Ancient Near East; an Indo-European name, it came from an area probably near Greece.

The Philistines, known for their occupation of the Canaanite area, were actually new arrivals in the region, showing up there around 1200 B.C., when the other groups, such as Egyptians, Hebrews, Babylonians, and Canaanites, had been there for centuries already.

There is no way to prove that the Goliath in the inscriptions is the same Goliath who fought a battle with Israel's king David; the name may have been common at that time, and these inscriptions could refer to a different Goliath. The discoveries do, however, bring us one step closer to re-assembling the historical puzzle of the famous series of Philistine attacks on the Hebrews.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Making the News, or Making it up?

How eager was Newsweek to print something that would make President Bush look bad? So eager that this popular news magazine, when it couldn't find anything damaging enough, resorted to fabricating stories. In 2005, Newsweek published a story about how interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay camp were torturing and humiliating the terrorists who were being housed there. The most graphic story centered around a prisoner who was forced to watch as a guard allegedly flushed a copy of the Qur'an down the toilet.

Obviously, the Qur'an (or Koran) is the sacred text of Islam, and the thought of it being abused this way would horrify any Muslim. This would indeed be a cruel act.

But it never happened. Within a week of publishing these stories, Newsweek was forced to admit that had been fabricated - that it simply was not true: a deliberate deception. What was the impact of Newsweek's lie?

In Islamic countries around the world, riots had already broken out, buildings and cars burned or otherwise destroyed, and at least seventeen people killed in the violence.

There are actually two stories here: the first story is about a group of reporters and editors who were willing to create a story and falsify facts when they needed them for political purposes. The second story is that even the unproven allegation of disregard for the Koran seems to be grounds to commit murder. People died because someone heard that something disrespectful had been done to the holy book of Islam.

What shall we say about the rioters, and their culture, which condones, and even celebrates, the wanton murder of innocent people, mayhem and destruction in response to the alleged and unproven destruction of a book? The question here is one of proportionate response. If a Koran had indeed been flushed, Muslims would have justifiably been offended. They may justifiably have considered the perpetrators boors, or barbarians, or hell-bound unbelievers. They may justifiably have issued denunciations accordingly. But to kill people thousands of miles away who had nothing to do with the act, and then fulminate with threats and murder against the entire Western world, all because of this alleged act, is disproportionate.

A few weeks prior to this incident, the government of Saudi Arabia had arrested forty Christians, and kept them jailed without bail, without any communication to the outside world, and without even explaining why they were arrested. The explanation finally given by the Saudi government was that these people had been guilty of discussing religious topics. Where was the proportionate response? Where were the thousands of people protesting about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and belief? Were there any riots or killings? No.

There is a cultural divide here: in North America, most citizens have been taught about peaceful and non-violent civil protest, so when someone called an "artist" chooses to insult the religious beliefs of millions by creating obscenities out of human urine and a Christian cross, or out of animal manure and a Bible, the reactions are not violent. Christians are offended and insulted, because this "artist" has deliberately worked to oppress their beliefs, but there is no violent reaction.

On the other side of the world, violence is seen as the logical response: we find cultures in which an innocent rape victim is stoned to death by the members of her village. Rioting and killing are seen as the appropriate way to respond to the idea that someone may disagree with one's religious beliefs.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Would You Kill Someone Who Maybe Insulted Your Religion - But Didn't?

How eager was Newsweek to print something that would make President Bush look bad? So eager that this popular news magazine, when it couldn't find anything damaging enough, resorted to fabricating stories. In 2005, Newsweek published a story about how interrogators at the Guantanamo Bay camp were torturing and humiliating the terrorists who were being housed there. The most graphic story centered around a prisoner who was forced to watch as a guard allegedly flushed a copy of the Qur'an down the toilet.

Obviously, the Qur'an (or Koran) is the sacred text of Islam, and the thought of it being abused this way would horrify any Muslim. This would indeed be a cruel act.

But it never happened. Within a week of publishing these stories, Newsweek was forced to admit that the story had been fabricated - that it simply was not true: a deliberate deception. What was the impact of Newsweek's lie?

In Islamic countries around the world, riots had already broken out, buildings and cars burned or otherwise destroyed, and at least seventeen people killed in the violence.

There are actually two stories here: the first story is about a group of reporters and editors who were willing to create a story and falsify facts when they needed them for political purposes. The second story is that even the unproven allegation of disregard for the Koran seems to be grounds to commit murder. People died because someone heard that something disrespectful had been done to the holy book of Islam.

What shall we say about the rioters, and their culture, which condones, and even celebrates, the wanton murder of innocent people, mayhem and destruction in response to the alleged and unproven destruction of a book? The question here is one of proportionate response. If a Koran had indeed been flushed, Muslims would have justifiably been offended. They may justifiably have considered the perpetrators boors, or barbarians, or hell-bound unbelievers. They may justifiably have issued denunciations accordingly. But to kill people thousands of miles away who had nothing to do with the act, and then fulminate with threats and murder against the entire Western world, all because of this alleged act, is disproportionate.

A few weeks prior to this incident, the government of Saudi Arabia had arrested forty Christians, and kept them jailed without bail, without any communication to the outside world, and without even explaining why they were arrested. The explanation finally given by the Saudi government was that these people had been guilty of discussing religious topics. Where was the proportionate response? Where were the thousands of people protesting about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought and belief? Were there any riots or killings? No.

There is a cultural divide here: in North America, most citizens have been taught about peaceful and non-violent civil protest, so when someone called an "artist" chooses to insult the religious beliefs of millions by creating obscenities out of human urine and a Christian cross, or out of animal manure and a Bible, the reactions are not violent. Christians are offended and insulted, because this "artist" has deliberately worked to oppress their beliefs, but there is no violent reaction.

On the other side of the world, violence is seen as the logical response: we find cultures in which an innocent rape victim is stoned to death by the members of her village. Rioting and killing are seen as the appropriate way to respond to the idea that someone may disagree with one's religious beliefs.

Friday, September 28, 2007

John Macquarrie, R.I.P.

Philosophers around the world recently mourned the death of John Macquarrie, whose astute mind helped explain the difficult thoughts of geniuses like Martin Heidegger and Rudolph Bultmann to the rest of us. Spending most of his career at Oxford, he examined a broad spectrum of belief systems, from Roman Catholic to Baptist, from Quaker to Lutheran. He was known both for his fairness and for his profound understanding.

One of his central ideas was that, when a philosopher speaks about God, the words and sentences must always be understood as somewhat symbolic, and not entirely literal. In speaking about the central Being of the universe, human language is simply not capable of expressing such facts directly. Therefore, the most serious texts will always be not completely literal. Any text which is understood only on a literal level with either be not very profound, like the owner's manual for your DVD player, or will have important hidden truths available only to the reader who uses a more symbolic method of interpretation. Macquarrie's concept is this: to be literal is to be overly simplistic, and understanding the existence of the universe is not a simple task. Macquarrie hypothesized that God is Being - using the word "Being" to indicate pure existence - the thing which keeps the universe from disappearing.

Interestingly, the philosophers who influenced Macquarrie the most, and the ones whom he most influenced, were the ones with whom he had some disagreement. Heidegger, who did much to consolidate the concept of "Being," was opposed to much of what Macquarrie believed, yet Macquarrie appreciated Heidegger's analysis of this concept. In Europe after World War II, when so much had been devastated, it became clear to many people that they had to return to a serious analysis of God and His nature. Macquarrie's philosophy was one of several which led the way to hope and a peaceful modern Europe. He was born in 1919 and died in 2007.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The Compton Effect

Arthur Compton studied at the University of Wooster in Ohio, and was later professor of physics at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. He earned the Noble Prize in 1927 for discovering the "Compton Effect" which dictates the amount of change in an x-ray beam when it passes through matter.

Compton was intensively active in the Presbyterian Church. Explaining his work in physics, he said, "a supreme intelligence brought the universe into being and created man. It is incontrovertible that where there is a plan there is an intelligence - and orderly unfolding of the universe testifies to the truth of the most majestic statement ever uttered." He went on: "beyond the nature that science teaches is the Spirit of God that gives order and meaning and purpose to human life."

"Compton scattering" (or "the Compton effect") is the decrease in energy (increase in wavelength) of an X-ray or gamma ray photon, when it interacts with matter. Inverse Compton scattering also exists, where the photon gains energy (decreasing in wavelength) upon interaction with matter. The amount the wavelength increases by is called the Compton shift. Although nuclear compton scattering exists, Compton scattering usually refers to the interaction involving only the electrons of an atom. The Compton effect was observed by Compton in 1923; he earned the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery.

Compton scattering is of prime importance to radiobiology, as it happens to be the most probable interaction of high energy X rays with atomic nuclei in living beings and is applied in radiation therapy. In material physics, Compton scattering can be used to probe the wave function of the electrons in matter in the momentum representation. Compton Scatter is an important effect in Gamma spectroscopy which gives rise to the Compton edge, as it is possible for the gamma rays to scatter out of the detectors used. Compton suppression is used to detect stray scatter gamma rays to counteract this effect.

Inverse Compton scattering is important in astrophysics. In X-ray astronomy, the accretion disk surrounding a black hole is believed to produce a thermal spectrum. The lower energy photons produced from this spectrum are scattered to higher energies by relativistic electrons in the surrounding corona. This is believed to cause the power law component in the X-ray spectra (0.2-10 keV) of accreting black holes. The effect is also observed when photons from the Cosmic microwave background move through the hot gas surrounding a galaxy cluster. The CMB photons are scattered to higher energies by the electrons in this gas, resulting in the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect.

Paul or Saul?

You have to feel a little sorry for him - so many people hated him and tried to kill him during his life, and in the nearly two thousand years since he died, they've continued to accuse him of simply being nasty!

But, according to Harvard professor Harvey Cox, and Garry Wills, a professor at Northwestern University, "Paul was neither an anti-Semite nor a misogynist ... Paul frequently commends women leaders in the congregations and proclaims that in these new messianic congregations there should be 'neither male nor female, neither slave nor free.'" What about those claims that Paul was anti-woman? It's true that he commands that women should always wear headcoverings in certain meetings, but he also gave orders about what men should and should not wear: everybody needed to dress appropriately, both men and women.

Paul simply wanted to "tell Jews everywhere that the messianic era they had prayed for had dawned and that a certain rabbi from Nazareth, slain by the Romans as a threat to their empire and raised from the dead by God, was the long-anticipated Messiah ... the hour had now come ... to welcome the gentiles into the covenant." Paul was an expert in that covenant, having worked in the San Hedrin (the Jewish high counsel) as an assistant to one of the San Hedrin's members; Paul knew the Jewish writings - the Tanakh and the Talmud - in great detail, being himself one of the most orthodox Jews.

This new religion would grow rapidly: "the time was ripe for just such a message. With the Roman pantheon in decay - dismissed by thoughtful people as mere superstition - and with Roman society rife with moral decay, Jewish monotheism and morality held a powerful attraction. Large numbers of gentiles were already attending synagogues but hesitated to undergo the circumcision and dietary restrictions required for conversion. At the same time, many Jews were looking for a more universal expression of their faith, in keeping with the emerging cosmopolitan culture. Paul's message attracted both. He taught that God had given his law to both Jews and gentiles, the former in the Torah, the latter by nature. All had fallen short, but now all were forgiven and called to constitute a single new and inclusive community."

Although extremely well-educated in matters of spirituality, Paul was not ignorant of politics: "the Roman Empire was not just the background of Paul's life and work but shaped his every word and deed. The empire was shaky, and Paul discerned its inner rot. He saw his task as preparing infrastructure that would replace it when it collapsed. Thus he gave the congregations he organized a political, not a religious name: ecclesia, meaning an official assembly of citizens. When these upstarts insisted that there was someone higher than Caesar to whom they owed supreme loyalty, Roman officials saw that they threatened the symbolic capstone of the whole system. The empire executed Peter and Paul, and Jesus before them, because the imperial elites did not view their movement as a harmless, otherworldly cult but as a real and present danger."

Muhammed on a Personal Basis

So who was this guy, who started Islam? Exiled from his home tribe, he formed an army: "there were epic battles with the Quraysh and other tribes, and Muhammed was a fighter and tactician." His military abilities, both to lead soldiers, and to use sword himself, became legendary. After the battle of Badr, he ordered the unarmed prisoners to be executed. He ordered several poetesses and poets in Medina to be killed, because they had expressed doubts about him. He organized the murders of several hundred men in the town of Banu Qurayza, suspecting them of disloyalty.

His family relationships were sometimes problematic: desiring "the wife of his adopted adult son," he took "her to be his fifth wife." He seemed to have a total of somewhere between eleven and thirteen wives, of who the youngest was engaged to him at age six, although she did marry him until she was nine years old.

(Quotes from Karen Armstrong at the University of London, and Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times.)

Steps to Fascism?

Psychologist and author R.J. Lifton has analyzed the mental adjustments which people make when forced to live in a totalitarian state - the way in which they attempt to make peace with the fact that they must do things which they find to be immoral: a soldier ordered to kill civilians, a teacher forced to present political propaganda to his class. The clearest examples are Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao's China, and Hitler's Nazi Party.

Lifton did a psychological study of the doctors who worked under Hitler's rule, and identified five steps by which they were seduced into silence, instead of protest:

First, there was coercive sterilization: Those who were to be sterilized included patients suffering from: mental deficiency, schizophrenia, manic depressive insanity, epilepsy, Huntington's chorea, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, grave bodily malformation, and hereditary alcoholism.

Second, killing of "impaired children" in hospitals.

Third, killing of "impaired" adults.

Fourth, killing of "impaired" inmates of concentration and extermination camps.

Fifth, mass killings.

Do we find eerie parallels to events in our own society? Consider: In the early to mid-1900s, forced sterilization was legal in sixteen states. Private individuals and prominent foundations supported the creation of the Eugenics Record Office to promote eugenics in American society. Eugenics is "the study of hereditary improvements of the human race by controlled selective breeding." Later, Jack Kervorkian assists over 100 people to kill themselves, Oregon institutes legalized physician-assisted suicide legislation. From 1998 to 2004, 208 persons with terminal illnesses have killed themselves. Eighty-seven percent cited the fear of losing autonomy as one of their concerns, and the death of Terry Schiavo in Florida is brought about through dehydration and starvation by discontinuing the administration of nutritional substances. Finally, New Jersey becomes the first state to legalize (and fund) human cloning experiments. The only reason for having these human cloned embryos is to terminate them in embryonic stem cell research experiments. Experience has shown that cloned animals are "impaired" and it is believed that cloned human beings would be just as impaired: "A review of all the world's cloned animals suggests that every one of them is genetically and physically defective. Ian Wilmut [lead scientist on the Dolly cloned sheep project] said, 'There is abundant evidence that cloning can and does go wrong and no justification for believing that this will not happen with humans.'" The Sunday Times of London reported that "gene defects emerge in all animal clones," indicating that anyone willing to make a human clone would be knowingly imposing a defect upon that human, and would be equally ready to exterminate that human for being defective.

Lifton comments: "The Nazis based their justification for direct medical killing on the simple concept of ‘life unworthy of life'. While the Nazis did not originate this concept, they carried it to its ultimate biological, racial, and ‘therapeutic’ extreme." Have these terrifying views, that human life has little value and can be terminated at will, crept into our culture?

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Mephibosheth - Friend or Foe?

Odd and amazing events took place among the monarchs of the Ancient Near East; often, the events are clearly understood, but interpretations offer more than one possible reason for them.

When Saul was king of the Israelites, his son Jonathan was a friend of David. Now, David had been designated as the next king, taking away what might seem to be Jonathan's rightful inherited title. Jonathan didn't seem to mind too much, but his father Saul did, and tried unsuccessfully to assassinated David on several occasions. Both Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle, leaving the way open for David to ascend to the throne.

David now being king, he thinks kindly of his old friend Jonathan, and shows hospitality to Jonathan's only surviving heir, a son named Mephibosheth, who happened also to be physically disabled. David invites Mephibosheth to live near him in the capitol city and even dine with him at the king's table in the royal palace. What a nice guy David was, to show such kindness to the handicapped child of his dead friend!

Or is there another way to view these events?

Not only in the Ancient Near East, but in any government which functions by hereditary monarchy, rulers, and those who want to be rulers, must carefully watch networks of extended family members. With Saul and Jonathan dead, anyone who wanted to opposed David's rule, and perhaps start a revolution, might very well look to Mephibosheth as figure around which to gather a political movement, being the heir to Saul's dynasty. As long as he lived, Mephibosheth represented a possible threat to David's political power, and even to David's life, inasmuch as any revolutionaries who would use Mephibosheth as a symbolic rallying point wouldn't hesitate to attempt an assassination. So David's kind invitation to Mephibosheth might simply have been a way for David to keep an eye on Mephibosheth, to prevent him from starting any political activities, and to see who might be in contact with him.

As a logical extension of this type of thinking, later on, when David's sons have reached adulthood, they also will become leaders of subversive political groups who attempt to assassinate David and grab power. Sons leading movements to assassinate their own fathers? Yes, again, this is a pattern found among hereditary monarchies.

Two thousand years later, in a typically dysfunctional royal family in England, these same dynamics will take place, as three sons of Henry II attempt to assassinate their father, and each other, supported at times by their mother; in return, Henry will consider assassinated his own sons, and have his wife placed in jail for a number of years.

The net effect of hereditary monarchy is to cause close family members to consider assassinating each other!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

History or Propaganda?

In history class, we learn about ancient cultures, read their writings, and generally form some opinion of them. A straightforward process, right? Well, not always.

When we read what these people left behind, it is not always simply a record of their activities. For example, a guy named Pericles gave a famous funeral speech, and Thucydides recorded that speech for us in his book about the Peloponnesian War, written shortly before 395 B.C. In that funeral speech, a glowing description of the Athenian society is given. The Athenians of the era between 450 B.C. and 400 B.C. are, according to Pericles, noble, virtuous, democratic, fair, just, creative, artistic, intellectual, diplomatic, etc. Who wouldn't like Athens? But that speech was propaganda, given during a war, designed to promote a certain image for Athens. When we read how Athenians really described themselves, we see that their government based itself on practices like extortion, blackmail, bribery, intimidation, and ruthlessness toward any sign of weakness.

Or consider the Romans. We might read the speeches of Cicero, where he describes the virtues of the Republic, which is, in his speeches, the fairest and most just system of government ever devised. Cicero's praise for the Roman system is foreshadowed by similar phrases in the books of Polybius, and seem to be embodied in the books of Marcus Aurelius, who, living long after the fall of the Roman Republic, appeared to carry on the tradition of Stoic virtues in the Roman Empire. But again, this is propaganda: reading more carefully, we see that Polybius points out the corruption and flaws of the Republic and its politicians, and Marcus Aurelius acted in ways that direct contradict the peaceful and fair tone of his Stoic writings: he sat at his desk and calmly signed orders to have thousands of women and children executed, for no other reason than that they were Christians.

The lesson? Even when you're reading an ancient book, be aware that it might be shrewd propaganda. The ancient Greeks and Romans spent a lot of time and effort trying to advertise themselves. They wanted to make themselves look good.

Imagine, for a moment, that you lived a thousand years from now in the future. Looking backward as a history student, you might study the two most hateful and cruel governments of our era: the Nazi government which oppressed Germany, and the Soviet government which enslaved Russia. We know the unspeakable atrocities which these two systems committed and the millions of deaths which they inflicted on innocent civilians. Yet, if all you read was the propaganda which they wrote about themselves, you might walk away thinking that they were nice guys!

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Junk Science?

Living in a world which, despite a strong post-modern leaning, is still largely modern, most of us have been educated to have a deep respect for the finding of science. But what, exactly, qualifies as "science"? Images of university researchers in which white lab coats, and computers churning out reams of statistics, come to mind. But beyond the physical appearances, there are also the phrases, which at least sound profound, about an "objective spirit of rational inquiry." And, to be sure, the great minds of people like Robert Boyle, Isaac Newton, and Michael Faraday deserve our respect, in part because of their noble minds, and in part because their findings have stood the test of time.

Sadly, however, there is a far-less-than-honorable industry, known as "junk science," which peddles propaganda disguised as intellectual effort.

How can you distinguish "junk science" from the real thing? There are a few clues: first, "junk science" will deal only with topics with immediate political or economic value, not with truth for truth's sake; second, it is funded by individuals or groups with a stake in the outcome; third, it proceeds with an agenda.

Consider a researcher trying to arrive at the most accurate possible value for the atomic weight of copper to fifty decimal places. This is not a social "hot button" topic; let us assume that the scientist doesn't have any preconceptions about the answer; it will be funded by those who desire only to have an accurate body of information for chemistry and physics. This is not "junk" science.

On the other hand, consider those who are paid by political parties and governments, not to find out "if" there is global warming, but rather accumulate evidence to persuade voters that there is global warming. Or those who are supported by governments and political parties, not to objectively and calmly compare Darwinism and Intelligent Design Theories, but rather to undermine and discredit those who question Darwinism. Likewise those who are paid, not to find out what causes some people to engage in homosexual behavior, but rather to support political policies about homosexual activities. None of these are intellectually respectable, and are in fact merely cleverly disguised propaganda. Whatever the word "science" might mean, these last three examples are not it.

One more example: medical research into the efficacy of various drugs is often funded by those who desire a certain outcome from the trials. Such experimentation, and the analysis of the resulting data, is often subject to financial, not scientific, pressures.

So, the next time a politician, a newspaper reporter, or an "expert" on TV or the Internet begins to tell you that there is "scientific" support for some view or opinion, beware!

Monday, June 25, 2007

Samuel Adams: Beer, Jesus, and Revolution

As early as July 1765, Samuel Adams, known mainly for brewing beer in Boston, was identified as a leader in the revolutionary movement which would eventually demand - and get - independence from England.

It was Adams - before Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, or Thomas Paine - who decided that the colonies could establish their own nation. He was the first American of any real prominence to dispute Parliament's right to tax the colonies.

Samuel Adams was a pious churchgoer who fashioned his arguments with scrupulous devotion to legal precedent, who urged his fellow citizens to refrain from violence except in self-defense, and whose aims, while ambitious, were also finite.

Unlike the French revolutionaries, Adams was no ideologue. In the beginning, his goal, it seems, was simply to ensure that Massachusetts merchants could operate without interference from Parliament or the Crown and without taxes to which they had not consented. As a producer and seller of ale, he had a direct interest in free trade. Such freedom of commerce, it turned out, required political independence, which Adams promoted. He sought no overthrow of established values, however. He wished Boston to become a "Christian Sparta."

Adams was well versed in history, literature, philosophy and legal theory, in addition to being recognized as one of the very best beer-brewers.

To his political opponents, Adams once wrote, "Do you think that your pen, or the pen of any man, can un-Christianize the mass of our citizens, or have you hopes of converting a few of them to assist you in so bad a cause?"

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Sir Salman?

In the current era, receiving knighthood from the Queen of England is a purely symbolic gesture; there is no military or political power attached to the office. Why, then, would several governments respond with "diplomatic threats" (an oxymoron), and riots erupt in different cities, when a poet was recently knighted?

Because that author is Salman Rushdie. For those of you with bad memories, Rushdie became famous, or infamous, in the 1980's, when he wrote a book which questioned some of the beliefs of Islam, and was somewhat skeptical of the Prophet Mohammad. In 1988, several Islamic governments issued orders to have Rushdie killed, and rewards were offered to anyone who killed him. He went in to hiding, and was protected by various European governments.

In mid-June 2007 Rushdie was given the title of knight by the British Queen. This action brought much criticism around the world in many countries with Muslim majority populations. Soon after the news of the knighthood was released protests against the honour were held in Malaysia and Pakistan where effigies of Rushdie were publicly burnt. On June 19, 2007, governments in both Pakistan and Iran summoned their British ambassadors to officially protest the award.

After Friday prayer services on June 22, 2007 Prominent cleric Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami spoke to worshipers by broadcast on state radio from Tehran. He addressed the death sentence issued by the Ayatollah in the 1980's against Rushdie, saying "In the Islamic Iran that revolutionary fatwa of Imam [Khomeini] is still alive and cannot be changed."

On June 18, 2007 Pakistan's parliament passed a resolution condemning the knighthood and demanding the British revoke it. The resolution was passed unanimously, then the Religious Affairs Minister told the parliament that "insults to Islam were at the root of terrorism", and said "if someone committed a suicide bombing to protect the honour of the Prophet Mohammad, his act was justified."

It seems that the governments of Iran and Pakistan (among others) are more willing to kill, than to allow anyone to voice questions about Mohammad, or skepticism about Islam.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

New Ways to Oppress

Although African-Americans have gained much in the area of civil rights over the last 150 years, racists keep trying to find new ways to oppress them.

Day Gardner is an African-American political activis, and she reports the following statistics:

* 34% of all abortions performed in the U.S. are performed on African-American women.

* African-Americans make up approximatley 15% of the U.S. population

* 98% of abortionists who performed these procedures are white

* over 90% of the donations to Planned Parenthood's abortion clincis are come from white donors

She concludes that abortionist "are trying to suggest that we fix societal problems by reducing the number of black Americans through abortion." She reminds us that it was Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, who managed to get large donations from white people by promising to reduce the African-American population. In short, she points out that rich white people donate money to pay rich white physicians to perform abortions on poor black women to make sure that there are fewer and fewer African-Americans.

Day Gardner is an administator at Georgetown University's medical center, and a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Creating Fear

We have learned that one common technique used by would-be fascists or totalitarians is the exploitation of fear. If a large segment of the population is sufficiently afraid of something, they will be willing to give power to a leader who promises to protect them from what threatens them.

If there is no great threat to a nation, unscrupulous leaders can still create fear among the people, and then use that fear to gain power. But the fear must be great, because it has to be powerful enough to convince most of the people to give up most of their rights to a dictatorship: hence the advent of doomsday scenarios.

If a political movement succeeds in convincing the citizens that there is some terrible fate ready to happen to them, like "global warming" or "climactic instability", and illustrate these fears with notions of catastrophic floods, storms, and droughts, then the votes might be scared enough to turn over their civil liberties to politicians who promise to save them from these terrible threats.

Beware the politician who creates fear!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Population and Economics

A steadily growing population provides the most fruitful economic environment. We learn this by studying the alternatives: an unsteadily growing population is synonomous with lurches in supply and demand, leading manufacturers into erratic business cycles; a population which does not grow at all cannot support the "legacy" costs of retirees, and more importantly, leads to excess management at top levels; a population growing too quickly leads to inflation and shortages; a shrinking population creates a local exodus of talent, and a global shortage of labor.

So the best route to prosperity is a steadily growing, slowly growing, population.

But would that lead to global over-population? Not at all. Since the writings of Thomas Malthus, the question of over-population has resurfaced time and again. Yet we see that, at the present time with earth's population over six billion, we are currently producing too much food, not too little. Food shortages and starvation are not caused by over-population, but by bad government. Likewise, resource management informs us that clean water and air can support billions more than are currently living on the planet. A population of twenty or even thirty billion is easily sustainable, with proper environmental stewardship. The vast amounts of uninhabited, but habitable, land ensure that we could avoid over-crowding. We are nowhere near the "carrying capacity" of our habitat. We simply need better use of resources.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Other "September 11th"

The date September 11th is clearly engraved on our minds as the date of the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington. Whether you characterize the Islamic terrorists as "non-Christian" or "anti-Christian", in either case, they believed themselves to be attacking a nation which they believed to be spiritually corrupt. They were attacking a nation whose core values (freedom, equality, individualism) were opposed to their worldview.

But there is another September 11th, over a century earlier. In 1857, a group of Christian families were making their way westward as part of a wagon train. Consisting largely of farmers with their wives and children, they had begun in Arkansas, and were mid-way through Utah on their journey toward California. Unfortunately for them, this was at time when the Mormon Church (also known as "Latter-Day Saints") was feeling somewhat paranoid toward the ordinary population of the United States. Convinced that these peaceful civilians posed some threat, the wagon train was attack at a location known as "Mountain Meadows", where over one hundred men, women, and children were slaughtered. Only a few infants remained alive. The Mormons had been ordered not only to attack the Christians, but to ensure that all of them died.

Whether in 1857 or in 2000, September 11th reminds us that the worldview of Western Civilization - a worldview that values each human life greatly and equally - is a culture which will has been attacked by other traditions - traditions which don't place much emphasis on the dignity of the individual human.

Friday, May 11, 2007

The Congress of Vienna - Again

Why do we keep returning to the topic of the Congress of Vienna? This brief event, in a beautiful German-speaking city, not only solved a series of social and political problems which had plagued Europe for the preceeding twenty-five years; it not created an international structure which preserved peace for several decades; it also symbolized and articulated a deeper and more abstract philosophy and view of human nature and human society.

The underlying attitudes which led to the outcomes of the Congress of Vienna were the ideas presented mainly by Metternich at the Congress, and by Edmund Burke years earlier. They were reacting to 25 years of continuous violence (10 years of French Revolution and 15 years of Napoleon). The attitude was never again can we allow so many people to die, either in mass executions at home (the Revolution), or in battle in foreign countries (Napoleon). In order to prevent this, they had to combat the attitudes which led to the Revolution, and those attitudes were the attitudes which Metternich and Burke opposed in their writings. The Revolutionaries said that you had to work for a perfect society, but Burke and Metternich said that perfection was impossible in this life, that you should settle for 99%, and perfection will come in the next life. The Revolutionaries said that you should make sudden radical changes, Burke and Metternich said that you had to respect tradition, because it represents the accumulated wisdom of human reason and human experience, so be slow and cautious when making changes. In practical terms, then, this meant that the Congress of Vienna wanted to make stable legitimate governments which might change slowly over time to adapt to new circumstances, but which would not make sudden revolutionary changes.

Reacting to the Congress of Vienna, there were those eventually came to disagree with it: J.S. Mill and Liberal movement of the 1800's who wanted free markets; the Nationalists who wanted the people of each nation to be free to express their collective identity and not be restrained by traditional governmental structures; and the Communist/Socialists, who thought that the changes and problems inflicted on society by urbanization and the industrial revolution required different political approaches.

So the Congress of Vienna is important, not only because it solved a specific set of diplomatic problems and preserved peace, but also because it symbolizes an outlook: the ideas, philosophies, views, opinions, and goals of Metternich and Burke, of a Europe tired of the bloodshed and mass murder which arose from the French Revolution and from Napoleon. Their plan was to stabilize Europe by restoring the legitimate governments, and by balancing the power among England, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and France, so that none would exercise hegemony over the others.

Equally historic are the movements which emerged, in part, as reactions against the Congress of Vienna: nationalism, J.S. Mill's liberalism, socialism/communism etc.

Liberals were freemarket people back then; nationalists viewed the identity of the nation as coming from the people, not the monarchs, but the Congress of Vienna supported the monarchs.

What is Luther Really Doing?

Some historians have characterized the struggle between Martin Luther and Pope Leo X as a struggle between "Papal Authority" and "Individual Experience / Revelation".

The same conflict can be described in a different way: "Is the ultimate source of authority in the Pope or in the Text?" Behind the different wordings lie two different notions of what Luther was really doing.

For the Roman Catholic Church in the 1500's, the Pope was the final word: what he said, was to be considered as the final decree on any topic.

For Martin Luther, the Text (i.e., the Hebrew and Greek documents which we call "Tanakh" and "New Testament") was the final word. Since we can all (hopefully!) read, we can each individually have access to the text for ourselves. It is in this sense that Luther stressed "individual experience."

Luther is sometimes mis-understood in this matter of "individual experience" - he was not a mystic, although there were many mystics in Luther's time. Luther did not want to place too much emphasis on individual spiritual experiences or revelations, because they retain a mainly subjective element. Rather, Luther located authority in text, because this made it objective. The letters on the page are the same, no matter who reads them! Certainly, there will remain a certain amount of subjectivity, as each person reads a text slightly differently. But the essence of text is objective, and that is what Luther was looking for.

The subjective side of Luther, then, lies in the fact that he empowers each individual to study the text and draw meaning from it; and as different individuals examine the same text, different interpretations will arise.

The objective side of Luther is seen in the fact that he views the text as the location of truth, publicly accessible to all; the ink on the page does not change, even if the readers do. The text is an objective fact.

So is Luther an objectivist or a subjectivist? Or both?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Analyzing Augustine

Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D. to 430 A.D.) is one of the most complex authors of his era. An African, he is part of the Roman Empire; a Christian, he was educated in pagan philosophy. His books deal with a wide variety of topics, and sometimes with more than one topic at the same time. He is defends the Christians who have been blamed for the fact that the Goths from northern Europe attacked and trashed Rome in 410 A.D.; the Roman polytheists said that the presence of Christians had angered the pagan gods and weakened the city. Augustine points out that the City of Rome would have been trashed even worse if the Christian churches hadn't protected both the pagan and Christian citizens of Rome.

Augustine uses the metaphor or image of two cities in his writings, but it is difficult to exactly define what they represent. The two cities are, of course, not actual physical cities, but symbols, for those who embrace Christianity as compared to those who cling to paganism. Alternatively, the can be interpreted, not as those two groups of people, but rather as two sets of ideas, and the interplay between them.

He is realistic enough to say that you will never have a society which is 100% pagan or a society which is 100% Christian, so the two groups have to cooperate, and they have common goals which will help them do this. Augustine pleads for tolerance: the pagans should stop killing the Christians, and stop blaming them for Rome's misfortunes, and simply allow the Christians to live peacefully within the Empire. Augustine echoes, in this way, the Emperor Constantine, who essentially founded the idea of tolerance, when he decided that Jews, Christians, and pagans would all be allowed to study their ideas in Roman society.

Augustine also says that simply being a member of the church doesn't guarantee that a person really has a Christian spiritual desire for peace. Being a Christian is studying and believing the distinctive ideas presented by Jesus (that each human life is valuable, that peace is better than war, etc.); being a Christian is different than merely being a member of a church.

As part of the Christian tradition, Augustine embraces the whole idea of God's unearned favor toward people; nobody earns God's gifts, and the thing that will really get a person into trouble is if she or he thinks that he or she is good enough to earn God's favor. Admitting that you're not perfect (says Augustine) is the basis for Christianity. These concepts apply equally to all people, making Christianity a user-friendly religion.

Augustine criticizes the pagans for thinking that earthly peace can be achieved by human intellect and abilities. Rather, he says, peace has a spiritual origin beyond human beings. Human beings, trying to use their own powers, are imperfect and insufficient to create peace. Augustine is pointing out that human reason is good and powerful, but it is not perfect, and there are somethings that human reason can't do. We need to be honest enough with ourselves to admit that we have limits. Centuries later, Augustinian philosophers, who formed one part of the Scholastic movement in the Middle Ages, will apply these ideas in a new setting.

Augustine points out the need the balance both the Christian impulse for societal involvement (helping the poor, founding schools, etc.) and the Christian impulse for meditation and contemplation: both are good, he says, but we should not have too much of either.

The future of human history is, then, societies continually trying to find peace and justice, and sometimes succeeding more, and sometimes succeeding less, depending on how the mix of people works together.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Mill or Blake - Natural or Revealed?

One of the big debates in 19th century was about the (no surprise) the character of religion.

J.S. Mill is an example of is called "natural religion" - meaning that using reason alone, in a priori thought, we can learn about God: who he is, what he does, what he's like. Mill had a lot of company. The idea of "natural religion" was shared by people like Rene Descartes and Thomas Paine. This type of religion is based only on those facts about God which human reason can deduce from pure logical thought. Mill's personal version of natural religion had two interesting features: a great emphasis on hope, and a reminder that there is nothing which forces God to give us a life after this one.

J.S. Mill's essay, “Theism,” is a short work began in 1868 and unfinished when Mill died in 1870. Mill thought that belief in a creator of great power was supported by the design argument, and one could certainly erect the superstructure of hope upon the base of a belief in a creator who would extend human existence beyond the grave: "Appearances point to the existence of a Being who has great power over us — all the power implied in the creation of the Cosmos, or of its organized beings at least — and of whose goodness we have evidence ... ; and as we do not know the limits either of his power or of his goodness, there is room to hope that both the one and the other may extend to granting us this gift provided that it would really be beneficial to us."

Mill continues: "Hope with regard to the government of the universe and the destiny of man after death ... is legitimate and philosophically defensible. The beneficial effect of such a hope is far from trifling." (Mill 1874: 248-9)

On the other hand, people like William Blake embraced what we call "revealed religion" - being skeptical about the powers of human reason to answer all questions. This was a more widely-held view than "natural religion," endorsed by most ordinary people, as well as physicists like Isaac Newton and chemists like Robert Boyle. They thought that human reason was a good and powerful tool, but questioned whether it could know everything, or be the only source of knowledge. In addition to reason, they saw revelation as a source of truth and knowledge - studying sacred texts.

Blake attacked the institutional church, while enthusiastically endorsing the Christian faith. Blake described the ‘everlasting Gospel’, which he saw as the original revelation that he believed Jesus preached. Jesus, for Blake, symbolises the vital relationship and unity between divinity and humanity. One of Blake's strongest objections to traditional churches is that he felt they encouraged the suppression of natural desires and discouraged earthly joy. Blake believed that the joy of man glorified God and that stale religions which deny earthly joy are opposed to God.

These two alternatives - "natural religion" and "revealed religion" - have caused creative thinking in debates over the last two or three centuries. Which one do you like?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Private Sector Charity Trumps Government Aid

In modern political and social thought, the role of governmental assistance in various areas of life has grown. A large segment of the population in modern industrial and post-industrial nations expects, and views as proper, the taxpayers to fund efforts in education, health care, anti-poverty efforts, the arts, and other projects.

Such governmental intervention has proven, however, to be both weak and counter-productive.

Weak, inasmuch as private-sector efforts are both better-funded and more effective. When the government sends hundreds of millions to help Tsunami victims in southern Asia, charities send billions more than any world government could hope to send. When the government offers a few beds for the homeless in downtown Ann Arbor, private organizations offer dozens more.

What do these agencies all have in common, these agencies who offer help which is so much more effective than any government program? They receive no taxpayer funds. They are supported entirely by freewill donations from private citizens.

Many, but not all, of these agencies are "faith-based" - mainly churches. Ironically, American churches sent billions of dollars to the Tsunami victims, who were mainly Muslim and Hindu: because one principle of the Christian faith is to help all human beings, not simply those who share your faith. By contrast, the wealthy Muslim nations of Middle East, like Saudi Arabia, sent almost no assistance to Tsunami victims, even though they are members of the same Islamic faith.

Are there numbers to back up these claims? Americans give more money to charities, per capita, than any other country. Americans give over $300 billion annually to registered charitable organizations - and billions more to other charities. That's over $1,000 per person. Consider that many people under the age of 18 are not able to give large sums: that means that the average wage-earner is giving even larger sums.

In addition, Americans donate millions of hour of labor to charities: Ann Arbor's homeless program relies of hundreds of hours of volunteer work each week.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Boyle's Ideal Gas Law and Newton's Gravity

Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton's best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done."

His scientific fame notwithstanding, Newton's study of the Bible was among his greatest passions. He devoted more time to the study of the Scriptures, Alchemy, and the Christian faith than to science, and said, "I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily." Newton himself wrote several books about the Bible, based on his knowledge of Hebrew grammar. Newton also placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which is now the accepted traditional date. His ability to calculate this date so accurately was due to careful cross-referencing between events in Roman history, events in the New Testament, and careful astronomical observations. Despite his focus on theology and alchemy, Newton tested and investigated these ideas with the scientific method, observing, hypothesising, and testing his theories. To Newton, his scientific and religious experiments were one and the same, observing and understanding how the world functioned.

Newton may have rejected the church's version doctrine of the Trinity. His studies of Hebrew texts may have led him to a different understanding of the nature of God's personalities.

In his own lifetime, Newton wrote more on religion than he did on natural science. He believed in a rationally immanent world. Thus, the ordered and dynamically informed universe could be understood, and must be understood, by an active reason, but this universe, to be perfect and ordained, had to be regular.

Newton and Robert Boyle’s mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox preachers as well as dissident preachers. Thus, the clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way to combat the emotional and metaphysical superlatives of atheism, and, at the same time, to demonstrate the possibility of a "natural religion." The idea of a "natural religion" is a religion which can be understood inductively from experience, a religion which is reasoned deductively from general principles of human knowledge. A "natural religion" is usually contrasted with a "revealed religion", which is based upon the careful study of a text. Newton seems to have engaged in both types of religion, and his books had the effect in England of encouraging both types, even though they sometimes competed with each other.

Boyle, who worked to ensure that the Bible would be accurately translated into different Asian languages by competent linguistic scientists, developed a mechanical conception of the universe, most famously with his "ideal gas" law. Newton gave Boyle’s ideas their completion through mathematical proofs and, perhaps more important, was very successful in popularizing them. Newton refashioned the universe into a world crafted by a God that designs along rational and universal principles. These principles were available for all people to discover, allowed man to pursue his own aims fruitfully, and to improve, but not perfect, himself with his own rational powers.

Newton saw God as the master creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation. The laws of physics are the God's thoughts, which He imposes on the world. In the Resurrection, Newton saw an absolutely "unique event" - a phrase which carries special importance in physics, because most events are not unique, being in principle reproducible by the re-application of the laws which produced them the first time.

The law of gravity became Sir Isaac Newton's best-known discovery. Newton warned against using it to view the universe as a mere machine, like a great clock.

Though he is better known for his love of science, the Bible was Sir Isaac Newton's greatest passion. He devoted more time to the study of Scripture than to science; he wrote more books about religion than about math or physics.

Newton’s conception of the physical world provided a stable model of the natural world that would reinforce stability and harmony in the civic world. Thus there is a social and political aspect to Newton's thought, but he did not write much about it.

Both Newton and Robert Boyle wrote substantial books about their faith, and worked to ensure that Bibles were distributed among the poor. Boyle's "ideal gas law" was for him a symbol of the perfect organization of the universe, which he said could only arise from a logical intelligent design.

Which Cultures Wage War Against Women?

Leading Demographer Warns UN About Global War on Girls - (NEW YORK — AP) At the UN this week, renowned scholar Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) warned delegates of the growing global gender imbalance due to prenatal sex selection. Calling the trend a “Global War Against Baby Girls”, Eberstadt delivered extensive statistics on the rise of “son preference” in every part of the world.

Refuting the assumptions that preference for baby boys is a localized cultural phenomenon or due solely to coercive population programs, Eberstadt’s research reveals that imbalance is due to several factors: an existing preference for sons, a decrease in overall fertility, and the exponential increase in the use of technology which facilitates sex selection in the prenatal stages. He also emphasized that a rise in education levels does not slow the problem and in some cases is associated with a stronger tendency to choose boys.

According to Eberstadt, natural birth rates are about 105 males for every 100 females born. Some regions of the world are experiencing upwards of 115 boys born for every 100 girls, some are as high at 150 boys born for every 100 girls. He warned delegates that this could just be the beginning and that the world is “moving to the realm of science fiction” as the ratio of baby boys to baby girls was already at levels “beyond nature.” Citing a recent study, Eberstadt said that even now there are 20 million “missing” baby girls in Asia alone, that sex-selection has permanently skewed the demographic balance of China and is in the process of skewing the demographic balance of India. He also showed the way that the trend has crept into Eastern Europe and Latin America, and that almost every African state is showing signs of vulnerability to the phenomenon.

Since 1994, the UN has recognized that “son preference” is discriminatory to women and girls and the Beijing Platform for Action lists female infanticide and prenatal sex selection as incidences of violence against women.

The recent Violence Against Children (VAC) study released earlier this year made no mention of the problem of sex-selection whereby parents are forced or coerced to choose one or two children and almost inevitably choose boys. The 139-page in-depth Violence Against Women (VAW) study also released this year only referred to prenatal sex selection three times.

A delegate at the lecture said, “This is astonishing. The research clearly shows that this is a growing problem all over the world. It is our job as delegates to seek solutions.”

Experts say solutions will be hard to come by. Eberstadt pointed out that when South Korea made sex selection illegal, the practice skyrocketed. Experts also point out that a rising imbalance of boys to girls will lead to trafficking in women and could contribute to an increasing national security concerns.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Culture and Creativity

Whether you call it "Western Culture" or "European Civilization" or simply the "Judeo-Christian Tradition", including much of North America and places like Australia, this stream of history has been an incredibly creative one.

According to the second Arab Human Development Report, which was written in 2003 for the United Nations Development Program by a group of courageous Arab social scientists, between 1980 and 1999, Arab countries produced 171 international patents. South Korea alone during that same period registered 16,328 patents. Hewlett-Packard registers, on average, eleven new patents a day. The average number of scientists and engineers working in research and development in the Arab countries is 371 per million people, while the world average, including countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, is 979, the report said. This helps to explain why although massive amounts of foreign technology are imported to the Arab regions, very little of it is internalized or supplanted by Arab innovations. Between 1995 and 1996, as many as 25 percent of the university graduates produced in the Arab world immigrated to some Western country. There are just 18 computers per 1,000 people in the Arab region today, compared with the global average of 78.3 per 1,000, and only 1.6 percent of the Arab population has Internet access. While Arabs represent almost five percent of the world's population, the report said, they produce only one percent of the books published. Of the 88 million unemployed males between fifteen and twenty-four worldwide, almost 26 percent are in the Middle East and North Africa, according to an International Labor Organization study (Associated Press, December 26, 2004).

This trend continues despite the fact that the Arab nations are wealthier than not only the average nation, but also wealthier than even the average developed nation. In fact, Arab wealth allows them to enjoy the fruit of Western technology: in Dubai, what will soon be the world's tallest building is being built - with engineers and architects from Europe and America, who quickly discovered that local builders were not up to the task.

The excess of wealth in the Arab nations is used to enjoy Western technology, but not to help or advance human needs: when the Tsunami struck a number of Islamic nations, disaster relief and humanitarian aid came largely from Europe and America, with only a trickle from the Arab world.

In contrast with the West, Arabic culture seems to have shut down its creative capabilities.


The term "dhimmi" refers to a non-Muslim person in a country which has been occupied by Islamic armies. This word, and the concept for which it stands, shaped history in southeastern Europe for several centuries.

Muslim armies steamrolled over North Africa, the Middle East, and Spain for five centuries after the death of Muhammed in 632 A.D.; magnificent basilicas and monasteries in Egypt, Syria, and Mesopotamia were left in smoking ruins by Muslims from the eighth to the tenth centuries.

Spain was pillaged and devastated many times: Zamora in 981, Barcelona in 987, Santiago de Compostela in 997. In 1000, Castile was ravaged, its Christian and Jewish populations either killed, or enslaved and then deported. This was the fate of the dhimmi.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

God at the U of M Hospital

During these first few years of the twenty-first century, research hospitals, like Ann Arbor's U of M, having been looking ever more closely at the link between spirituality and wellness.

To be sure, no simple link exists: we cannot simply assert that those who sharpened their spiritual awareness don't suffer from the same health problems as everybody else. They get sick and die like the rest of us.

But it is also indisputable that some fascinating correlations exist among the realms of faith and health. The mediator between those two is sometimes psychology. All three play a role in a recent dissertation, "God in Fatherlessness", submitted in June 2000 by a staff member at Michigan's hospital.

There exists, on the one hand, the established connection between fatherlessness (through death, divorce, or a father who is physically present but emotionally unavailable) and a decreased ability to engage spiritually. On the other hand, there are the indirect links between spirituality and health.

The recent dissertation adds to this already complex mix the notion that fatherlessness pushes the fatherless toward the conclusion that the absent father is "negatively intended"; one possible conclusion is that the fatherless are nudged, not only toward mere atheism, but toward a view that God is somehow malicious.

Final conclusions in these questions will be found only after much more research, but this will clearly be a major field of medical exploration as the century moves forward.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Getting Married in Somalia?

The Associated Press recently (11/11/2006) that the Islamic government of Somalia has made it illegal, punishable by death, to get married without the explicit prior consent of the parents of both the bride and the groom, no matter how old they may be. "It is against the teaching of our religion and parents do not approve of it," said Sheik Mahad Mohamed Sheik Hassan, chairman of Somalia's Islamic court. The fact that the title "Sheik" occurs twice indicates his high governmental position.

The Muslim government has also banned movies, live music, and sporting events. Somalia is currently in the midst of a civil war. Both sides, however, seem to embrace the view that Islamic law should control society.