Report on Icelandic religious belief “literally” misleading

continental-fault-line-iceland-2013

The Washington Post reports under the headline, “In this country, literally no young Christians believe that God created the Earth.” The country is Iceland.

So is it “literally” true? God by any standard conceptual defintion just is the creator of the entire physical universe, which includes the Earth. So whether a Christian, or any theist for that matter, believes this through young earth creationism, old earth creationism, theistic evolution/evolutionary creationism, intelligent design, natural theology, or by logical inferences after reading the back of a cereal box, she believes indeed that God created the Earth. For any theist, the Earth did not get the way it is today without at least two means. First, God’s immediate, creative act that brought the physical world into being out of literally nothing, and second, God’s sovereign supervision over ordinary physical means, attributed by virtually everyone to what are called the laws of nature.

This piece of reporting shows how major media can drastically downplay what Christians actually think while in pursuit of the sexy narrative that traditional religious belief is in dramatic decline.

Exemplifying the misleading pull of this narrative, one graphic charts the “Rise of atheism in Iceland,” but the two mutually exclusive responses plotted are “Religious Believers” and “Non-religious,” where the latter includes atheists and non-religious people. Like a cheap off-brand hot dog vendor, some editor has allowed this chart to puff up “atheism” with filler that includes agnostics and non-religious people. This probably counts many spiritual theists who for whatever reason don’t self-identify with a religious tradition.

So all told, don’t believe a headline when it says “literally” no young Icelanders believe in creation.

Photo credit: travfotos via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

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Snarky journalism isn’t fixing this

(Breitbart.com)

 

 

The New York Daily News declares on its front page today, “God isn’t fixing this.” This is the worst headline of the year for the following five reasons:

1. The editor isn’t omniscient, and ignores God’s revelation that he is at work in the world, whether we pray or not.

2. Prayer has multiple purposes, and it is somewhat known amongst people who pray that God is not a cosmic vending machine.

3. “My thoughts are with you” doesn’t fix the problem any better than prayer.

4. Hillary Clinton’s politically expedient call for more gun control “isn’t fixing this” either.

5. This headline is is a product of the “do something disease” and the mistaken notion that government just needs to push a big red button to make it stop. Rather than emote or stoke vitriol against disfavored GOP candidates, this newspaper editor needs to grow up.

Religion makes children less altruistic, less moral?


Enokson / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

A recent study reports that religion makes children more selfish. Another headline says that nonreligious children are more generous, and another casts the study results in terms of altruism. If true, this devastates the case for raising children with religion, right? After all, scientists said it, so that settles it.

Not so fast. Let me recap the basics of the study first. It included a “dictator game” to see how many stickers a child subject would reallocate when told of another child who was unfortunate enough to have no stickers. According to the study, kids from secular homes gave more stickers on average than kids from Christian and Muslim homes.

In another part of the study, the child subject watches someone being mean to someone else, and then is asked to evaluate the degree of punishment the transgressor should receive. Muslim kids assigned more severe punishment than the Christian kids did, and Christian kids assigned a more severe punishment than the secular kids did. From these findings, it is alternately reported that kids from religious homes are less generous, altruistic, and moral than their secular cohort.

While altruism, generosity, and selfishness all touch on what it means to be moral, these attitudes don’t exhaust what morality is. And by morality I mean ethics. Neither the researchers nor the journalists provide a meta-ethical context for understanding these observed behavioral differences. What difference would that make?

Scientists Can’t Wrangle Virtue

There are many ethical theories by which we might understand an action as moral. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle gave us a big one, the concept of virtue. A virtue is not an unmitigated good. A deficit or an excess of what would otherwise be a virtuous attitude results in vice. Take patience for example. Snapping angrily at your child on her first request for ice cream is a vicious deficit of patience. But letting your child run the credit card up–to its limit–with ice cream purchases is a vicious excess of patience.

In addition to having the right amount of an attitude at the right time, a virtuous person must know he is doing the right thing at the right time. And he must intend it. Let’s say that Uncle Scrooge walks past the orphanage, and while quickening his pace to avoid a volunteer collecting donations, he trips on a cobblestone. Some change he was gripping tightly happens to fly into the collection bucket. The volunteer profusely thanks Scrooge for his generosity, while Scrooge screws his face in dismay. First, Scrooge may not have known it was right to donate his change then. Second, from what we know of him, and his reaction, we conclude he didn’t intend to donate. If you know the episode “Jaynestown” from the TV show Firefly, you have another example of this. No knowledge, no intention, no virtue.

As the study itself acknowledges, the child subjects are still developing. For all we know, they don’t know that they are behaving virtuously as opposed to just doing what feels good. We know nothing of their parents’ theology, ideology, or worldview besides the labels the researchers choose to categorize them by. Without interviewing the subject, a scientist can’t accurately describe the subject’s motive. He can impose his explanation upon what he observes, but this fails to take the subject’s life of the mind seriously. Whatever else the researchers are trying to do, it isn’t research about morality.

What if Altruists are Suckers?

Granted the idea of virtue and vice, can there be such a thing as too much generosity? If we take the consequence of evolutionary behavior as the standard for morality, it’s certainly possible. Spurred by the evolutionary game theory in Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, philosopher J. L. Mackie proposed that altruistic behavior could be counterproductive for the survival of a species.[1] He relates this in an evolutionary survival game where a species of birds has developed the behavior of grooming each other in order to remove pesky bugs they can’t reach on the back of their own heads. An individual bird of the species can exhibit one of three types of behavior: sucker, cheat, or grudger. A sucker always grooms another bird no matter what. A cheat loves to be groomed, but never grooms another bird in return. A grudger grooms another bird, but will stop grooming another bird that takes advantage of her generosity. If the population is mostly grudgers, then cheats won’t thrive. But if there are enough “altruistic” suckers, grudgers could proliferate, even to the point where their “selfish” behavior drives the species extinct.

Mackie suggests that altruism may not be the most moral attitude after all. He identifies himself as a grudger: tit for tat, eye for an eye. It appeals to the innate sense of justice. After all, under normal circumstances, who would let a murderer go free? The secular children in the altruism study more arguably would do so, perhaps thinking they are being kind by overlooking another’s trespass. In this case, Mackie and thoughtful people might side with the Muslim children in their assessment of the appropriate punishment and who is more “moral.” Now the study doesn’t give us a clear sense of what degree of punishment is appropriate or virtuous. It hints that assigning “harsher” punishment is less moral, but why that would be the case is unclear.

So in sum, the altruism study and articles reporting on it miss two important things. First, because there is no ethical framework in view, we have no evaluative context for the children’s actions, and no actual understanding of their motivations. Instead, it is assumed that generous behavior is what makes for morality, and that desiring a wrongdoer be punished is a moral failing. But these assumptions are far from granted for critically thinking people. Second, the study fails to acknowledge an evolutionary scenario where altruism can be counterproductive. Instead of research and journalism that takes these two realities seriously, we have fodder for fit for the social media one-upmanship that fuels the spurious science-versus-religion narrative.

PS: With respect to the “dictator game” the experimenters conduct with sticker allocation, check out this blog post citing a study where the validity of dictator games are undermined by “experimenter demand effects.”

[1] Mackie, J. L.. 1978. “The Law of the Jungle: Moral Alternatives and Principles of Evolution”. Philosophy 53 (206). Cambridge University Press: 455–64. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3749875.

Black Lives Matter, and they hold to quantum indeterminacy?

Let’s applaud Democratic pundit David Mercer for appearing in a debate about Black Lives Matter on Fox News’ “Strategy Room.” Yes, I was watching Fox News, but I am hopeful that Pope Francis will soon be offering absolution for that particular sin. Seriously though, it’s praiseworthy whenever people with different views come together for discussion. Even if it’s stuffed with rote partisan talking points and there’s more heat than light.

Here’s a quote from Mr. Mercer I want to share with you (circa 3:25) :

When black men–now I’m above the age–but I had a better chance between 18 and 35 of going to jail or being shot than I did getting a college education.

Percentages apply rightfully to the activity of indeterminate theoretical entities, like the chance a subatomic particle will pop into being out of a quantum vacuum. Individual human beings, who are always particular and situated in history, don’t reduce down to a neat statistic. They always have the messy baggage of having had some particular woman as a mother, man as a father, or another person as guardian who raised them for better or worse. There are always certain values instilled, and a particular cultural milieu present. Whatever the mix of people and experiences, I bet it was this, more than mere statistical chance, that determined whether Mr. Mercer ended up going to college.

None of this is to “blame the victim” for those who end up killed or in jail. By the way, are there some excluded options, like going to trade school or just entering the workforce? At any rate, the claim I’m making is modest: persons are particular, and given the knowledge a person has about himself, any claim he makes that some statistical chance holds sway over him isn’t credible. It is one thing to talk percentages about the weather or health events, but socioeconomics always involve people informed by values who are making choices. Whatever the issue may be–race, gender, jobs, or families–let’s not abstract away that part of the policy conversation.

Vacuous NYT report props up Planned Parenthood’s “videos were edited” meme


The New York Times reports today that “Undercover Planned Parenthood Videos Were Altered, Analysis Finds.” There’s almost no value to this story, because the only videos that the company chose to “analyze” were the shorter, edited videos, not the uncut, longer ones. To say an edited video was “altered” is trivial. It implies nothing about the truth of the content of the video.

Notice two things in this snippet from the NYT story:

According to the investigation, the reviewers could not determine “the extent to which C.M.P.s undisclosed edits and cuts distort the meaning of the encounters the videos purport to document.”
But, it said, “the manipulation of the videos does mean they have no evidentiary value in a legal context and cannot be relied upon for any official inquiries” unless C.M.P. provides investigators with its original material, and that material is independently authenticated as unaltered.

First, the analysts balk at giving substance to the claim that the videos were altered. Taking after Derrida, they are totally agnostic about what the video is really trying to say, and how that might differ from what the raw data of the uncut video really says.

Second, I’m not so sure that a “manipulated” video has zero evidentiary value in court. A testimony, whether written or recorded as audio or video, is necessarily a product of a human mind and hands at work. Call this manipulation. Yet, such testimony is often rightly admitted as evidence.

More pertinent to Planned Parenthood’s legal troubles, the longer videos that the Center For Medical Progress recorded are very likely not “manipulated” in the nefarious sense that the analysts suggest. The job of a legal prosecutor will be to draw on that uncut video evidence to produce a case that in effect corroborates the shorter, edited videos. And it is the jury, not these analysts paid big bucks to say nothing of value, who will decide the matter.

So what business does the New York Times have in producing this empty story, if not to carry water for Planned Parenthood? The report uncritically repeats the message of a company hired by Planned Parenthood. The coverage is one-sided; there’s zero effort to get comment by anyone not ultimately commissioned by Planned Parenthood. The headline is clearly meant to prop up the vacuous “videos were edited” excuse for ignoring the content of the CMP releases. Imagine how many social media feeds this unsubstantial NYT story is populating now, giving false relief to people who want to ignore the undeniable brutality, callousness, and illegality that these videos–edited or not–clearly attest to. Whatever The New York Times is doing here, it is not objective journalism.

Photo credit: / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

Should a Christian baker bake two cakes instead?

“And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.”

Matthew 5:41 (ESV)

The above passage has recently been used to suggest that Christian bakers, if asked to bake a gay wedding cake, should bake two instead. Does this prescription necessarily follow from Jesus’ very own words? Consider this application:

“And if anyone forces you to go to the back of the bus, go twice as far back.”

Anyone who knows the history of the American civil rights movement also knows this is dead wrong. It is a mistaken application of moral reasoning. This is because we know that sometimes, it is right to stand firm in the face of injustice. One thing we know of Jesus is that he always stood for moral truth; he was faithful to and never abandoned it. Even when people misjudged his intentions, to the point of crucifying him. Can we all at least concede the possibility that business operators are trying to make a similar stand?

It has been advised that a Christian should bake a cake to avoid hurting another’s feelings. But following Jesus seems to be more about being faithful to truth than aoviding hurting other’s feelings. Jesus did not swerve from truth when rebuking Pharisees, moneychangers, or even when interacting with the rich, young ruler. Even beyond what scripture says, it is common sense knowledge that we can’t control how others react to us. Avoiding hurting other’s feelings should not trump faithfulness to truth.

The current moment presents a dilemma for bakers, florists, and others who hold to conscience. Today, litigiious activists would force them to appear as if they are affirming and celebrating same-sex marriage as identical to natural marriage. To say nothing of scripture, there is a very real, natural, biological difference beween same-sex and man-woman relationships. The practical difference has been virtually obliterated for the sake of a coarse political agenda, built on mistaken premises. Activists seem to want to compel speech to the effect that, “I approve of you as a human being.” But I believe most of these business owners, like Washington state florist Barronelle Stutzamn, already approve of, and indeed truly love, their LGBTQ customers as human beings. It has been a long held truth that equal dignity comes from all of our being made in the image of God, imago Dei. Lawsuits and vitriolic compulsion do nothing to add or subtract from anyone’s dignity. Rather, they call into question the judgment of activists and progressive supporters who think such moves are justified.

It is a remarkable irony that as the voices of compulsion grow louder, people of conscience have all the more reason to take a stand for truth. And for Christians particularly, being misunderstood is not something to avoid, but to patiently endure until the truth prevails. As the U.S. civil rights movement itself illustrates, sometimes, it is the right thing to refuse what others demand of you.

(In)tolerance at Mozilla

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.

-The Friends of Voltaire (1906)

Tolerance in the face of disagreement, even incredibly odious disagreement, has been a hallmark of American civil discourse. The idea as we know it today crystallized with Voltaire, although Jacques Barzun informs us that it was the English Puritans who first gave it to us.

Today, it seems tolerance is gone. I was watching this Red Eye clip just yesterday, where Reason‘s chief editor Nick Gillespie was marveling that, in America’s post-scarcity economy, consumers can afford to make political statements by boycott. This in response to news that dating website OK Cupid blocked Mozilla Firefox users from its service because Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich gave a $1,000 political donation to California’s Proposition 8. That was the overturned state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Gillespie was right; boycotts are a luxury of those fortunate enough to be able to choose how to spend their money and time. They are a possible solution to the first-world problem of having to live with someone who makes you uncomfortable by virtue of their seeing the world differently from you. Some progressives seem to be very good at wielding this blunt, destructive, stigmatizing tool of social ostracization and economic isolation. Recall the Oregon bakers whose painstakingly-built business was shuttered by boycott and intimidation in 2013.

On Thursday, after just a few days of pressure, Mr. Eich stepped down because some of his employees simply did not like how he spent his own money. They did not like his political speech, so they cut short his career. He happened to be a Mozilla co-founder. Oh, and he only invented javascript. That kind of tearing down of someone who makes things for a living, transforms the way we live our lives, but just happens to see things differently from you, that’s what I call progress.

It would seem an apology is in order to Mr. Eich, but as it turns out, the apology went the other way around. The Wall Street Journal reports:

In a blog post Thursday, Mozilla’s executive chairwoman, Mitchell Baker, apologized for Mr. Eich’s appointment, writing, “We have employees with a wide diversity of views. Our culture of openness extends to encouraging staff and community to share their beliefs and opinions in public…But this time we failed to listen, to engage, and to be guided by our community.”

Amazing. Baker’s apology was not for Mozilla’s being intolerant of Eich’s views, but for his alleged intolerance to the company. On what evidence? Now that he’s gone, everyone can feel safe “to share their beliefs and opinions in public.” Orwellian. Chilling.

Maybe Mr. Eich was hateful. I don’t know. How does one determine that? According to the Journal, he made conciliatory moves. But even if he were a hateful, smoldering homophobic imp, I will have to make the point as I have a few times before by asking, why think that it is inherently immoral, blameworthy, or hateful for government to restrict the kinds of relationships it recognizes?

 

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