Monthly Archives: August 2011

Is Multinational Democracy Possible?

Vaclav Klaus

Vaclav Klaus

While chewing on my Frosted Shredded Wheat this morning, I read a thought-provoking speech by the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus.

A highly educated economist as well as a top politician in his country, Dr. Klaus says that Europe’s current economic malaise is the result of a decadent and paternalistic economic culture, especially in the wake of increased unification and the implementation of a single currency.

After distinguishing between integration (a good thing) and centralization (an ominous turn away from democracy), he spoke the line that really caught my eye:

It was forgotten that states are the only institutions where real democracy is possible.

His ideas are an interesting counterpoint to my last post, Morality, Fractals and the Arab Spring, where I waxed optimistic about the increasing scale of democracy in the world.

You can read his speech here: The Crisis of the European Union: Causes and Significance.

What do you think? Can democracy function at a super-national level, or is the nation-state the largest scale where it can be accountable to the people?

Morality, Fractals and the Arab Spring

Fractal Flower

Fractal Flower

As freedom unfolds this year in the Arab world, we can enjoy watching a beautiful fractal develop another level. What do fractals and the Arab Spring have to do with each other? Let’s first talk about fractals and morality.

A fractal is a “rough or fragmented geometric shape that can be split into parts, each of which is (at least approximately) a reduced-size copy of the whole,” according to Benoit Mandelbrot, one of the pioneers in the field.

Morality has been summarized as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A central idea here is cooperation.

It occurs to me that morality — in the sense of cooperation — is like a fractal: composed of many nested parts, with the parts at each level similar to the ones at other levels.

Protocell (Theoretical)

Protocell (Theoretical)

The first protocells may have been composed of only two types of molecules: a fatty-acid membrane with RNA inside. The molecules weren’t doing much, but they were cooperating to form something which would later mutate into the cells we know today.

Modern cells display more developed cooperation, with specialized organelles providing energy, reproduction and other functions.

The Haj

Muslim Pilgrims - The Haj

Building up from there, we have the body, again composed of specialized, quasi-independent parts in cooperation.

Fractal levels continue, including the family, the neighborhood, the town, the state and the nation — all based on the cooperation of somewhat autonomous agents. Religions display similar characteristics.

These fractal levels developed over time, elements of one level (e.g., the town) coalescing into the next (the nation-state). I say that this, like any fractal, is beautiful to contemplate.

The latest development has been called the Arab Spring. Across the Middle East, peoples are re-forming their governments along the cooperative model of democracy. That’s one level of progress — one fractal level.

Above that we have the international community dealing with one of the last beneficiaries of the Arab Spring, namely Libya. As Fareed Zakaria has observed, the United States, under the skillful leadership of President Obama, has engineered better balance between us and the Europeans to bring the Gadhafi regime to heel. Most surprising and encouraging of all has been the Arab League’s role in disciplining one of their own.

What’s next? Interplanetary cooperation? Galactic? Hmm… There is a resemblance…

The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way Galaxy

Faith to Mine Mountains

Mining by Mountaintop Removal

Mountaintop removal/valley fill coal mining in southern West Virginia in May 2003, Photo by Vivian Stockman, May 30, 2003

If you believe God has a plan for everything, that’s fine.

Just please, please, please don’t let the man in this video be you.

Does God Support Mountaintop Removal?  (Video on CNN.)

In case CNN doesn’t keep that video up forever, here is a transcript of the entire thing. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien is interviewing Art Kirkendoll, a former West Virginia county commissioner.

Art Kirkendoll: Why do you think the oranges grow in California, or the tobacco in the Carolinas? I mean, I believe God has a plan for everybody to have certain areas with certain economic availability.

Soledad O’Brien: And do you think God thought, “…and I hope they lop the tops off the mountains and dig in and get that coal?”

AK: I think … yes I do.

SO: You really think God is saying, “I prefer mountaintop removal to underground mining”?

AK: Well, if God wanted underground mining, why would have have put a 13-inch seam of coal that you can’t mine underground? Why would he have done that?

I don’t know much about mining, but I do know about faith. I know enough to be frightened when public officials let their supposed insight into God’s plans guide their policy. They ought to realize (and don’t) that God’s plans in this sort of situation are impossible to divine.

For instance, even I, as a non-believer, can think of many answers to Mr. Kirkendoll’s final questions. (You remember: the ones he thought there was only one answer to.) God put that 13-inch seam of non-underground-minable coal there so…

  1. …we would strengthen our character by resisting temptation.
  2. …we would hold it in reserve for the coming times when energy will be so expensive that it will be economically viable to mine that seam underground.
  3. …we would know that he is a God of Abundance, creating extra coal that we can see and appreciate him for, but not mine.
  4. …we would be spurred to invent new, ecologically responsible techniques for mining coal underground.
  5. …we would blow the top off of exactly one mountain and then ask in bitter remorse, “What have we done to God’s green earth???” and never do anything like that again.

If you get comfort from a notion that God has a plan, that’s wonderful. Just please don’t imagine that you know what that plan is…especially if you’re a public official.

Why Would a Christian Politician Lie?

[Warning: This post is a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to see what that means.]

[Substantially edited on 8/20/2011.]

In this morning’s post, I observed that the presidential candidates on the Christian Right lie more often than their more moderate or left-leaning colleagues, according to figures on the non-partisan Website, Politifact.com.

Why is this? Why would politicians who claim to be all about The Truth tell lies so often? One would think that lies from Christians who take their faith as seriously as Bachmann, Palin, Perry et al do would be the rare exception. What’s going on here?

Let me say from the get-go that I am not talking about the more moderate sort of Christian politician: people like George H. W. Bush or Barack Obama. I’m talking about those who are most strongly identified with the specifically Christian Right: those who fuel their supercars with vitriol about gays, Muslims, illegal immigrants, etc., and want to “restore” us as a Christian nation.

As a former member of the Christian Right, I think I have some insight into why these politicians might lie.

First, the Religious Right view themselves as serving a cause that is infinitely greater than the petty affairs of men. At stake are the eternal souls of millions of people. Martin Luther is reliably reported to have said,

What harm would it do, if a man told a good strong lie for the sake of the good and for the Christian church…a lie out of necessity, a useful lie, a helpful lie, such lies would not be against God, he would accept them.

By comparison to the infinite importance of even one eternal soul, a few lies are technicalities, right?

Second, the Christian Right believe they’re in a war, not a debate. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard evangelicals apply Ephesians 6:12 to the culture wars:

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

If “all’s fair in love and war” then you must have an awful lot of latitude when fighting Satan and his “spiritual forces of evil.”

Third, the Religious Right’s base are conditioned against critical thinking.  As a result, Religious Right politicians know they can get away with big lies…so they do.

That’s a strong charge, but having sat in the pews for 40 years, I can say with some experience that the average evangelical is more concerned with building up his faith and with winning the culture wars than with objectively evaluating the truthfulness of a given proposition. Lip service is paid to critical thinking but when push comes to shove, reason must submit to faith.

Don’t believe me? Listen to what one of the foremost Christian apologists of our age, William Lane Craig, has to say on the subject. Dr. Craig styles himself a great advocate for reason. His Website, named after one of his most famous books, is called ReasonableFaith.org. Craig does not spend much time in the political arena, but he is one of the thought-leaders in evangelicalism. On page 36 of the aforementioned book he states,

Should a conflict arise between the witness of the Holy Spirit to the fundamental truth of the Christian faith and beliefs based on argument and evidence, then it is the former which must take precedence over the latter, not vice versa.

In a less polite age, Martin Luther expressed a similar thought:

Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore; by nature and manner of being she is a noxious whore; she is a prostitute, the Devil’s appointed whore; whore eaten by scab and leprosy who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom… Throw dung in her face to make her ugly. She is and she ought to be drowned in baptism.  (Works, Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142-148.)

I hope I’ve made my point about the true role of reason in the evangelical church. Is it any wonder that hyper-evangelical politicians are able to lie so boldly to the faithful?

It is ironic that a group that views itself as in an eternal battle against the Father of Lies inevitably finds itself lying to win the battle. Yet, the very importance of the struggle and the certainty that Truth is on their side makes lying inevitable.

Which Politicians Tell the Truth?

Whoever the next president of the United States is, he or she will confront crises that have never crossed our minds. How to respond to terrorists flying commercial jets into skyscrapers was not a campaign issue when George W. Bush campaigned, but the event defined his presidency.

The most we can do to prepare for unforeseen crises is to elect a president who has good character.

Most aspects of character are impossible to measure, but there is one important attribute that can be easily rated: truthfulness. Politicians make statements that are either true or false, and we can see how often they lie.

Politifact on Bachmann

Michele Bachmann's Politifact Scorecard as of 8/18/2011

Of course it’s not quite that simple. A politician’s truthiness will depend on which statements we evaluate, and the truthfulness of some claims can be hard to determine. Nevertheless, as a fun and informal exercise, I went to the non-partisan, Pulitzer-Prize-winning website Politifact.com today and gave it a try.

Politifact on Barack Obama

Barack Obama's Politifact Scorecard as of 8/18/2011

Politifact evaluates the truthfulness of many newsworthy statements made by public figures and rates them as you see in the illustrations here.

For most of my life, I would have assumed that politicians on the Christian Right would tell the truth more often than those damned liberals. After all, they’re Christians, right? I mean, they do what the Bible says and liberals have no moral compass at all. Right?

The data call that assumption into question.

I looked up the ratings of all the candidates for president in 2012. I threw in the Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate as well as Vice President Biden for good measure.

I then subjectively divided the field into Christian Right, Secular Right and Moderate/Left.

  • In the Christian Right camp were Bachmann, Perry, Santorum and Pawlenty.
  • The Secular Right were Cain, Romney, Gingrich, Paul, Boehner, and McConnell.
  • The Moderate/Left camp consisted of all the Democrats.

If you care to quibble about some of of my assignments, feel free to do your own study and leave the results as comments to this post. You can also get my raw numbers on an Excel spreadsheet here: Politifact Scorecards 2011-08-18. I’m confident, though, that my main point will remain with any reasonable categorization.

Here’s what I found.

  • Based on the statements that Politifact rated, the most consistent truth-tellers were in Moderate/Left group and the most consistent liars were in the Christian Right. The Secular Right were in the middle.
  • The Christian Right’s statements were False or Pants on Fire 41% of the time. The Moderate/Left’s were in that range less than half that often. Yes, I know that PolitiFact rates only the statements that are provocative enough that people will want to look them up, but still…
  • The two biggest liars were two of the Christian Right’s hottest firebrands. A whopping two-thirds of Bachmann’s statements were either False or Pants on Fire. Rick Santorum’s rating was identical to hers.
  • The most truthful person on the list was our president. In fact, he and Vice President Biden (yes, plagiarist Biden) were the only ones on the list to have False/Pants on Fire percentages only in the teens, at 17% and 18% respectively.

Yes, I know that my study is very unscientific, but it does square with my general experience. It seems that when I hear a truly outrageous statement, it’s more likely to have come from the Right than from the Left. Also, it’s no exaggeration to say that most of the claims that have gotten my right-leaning acquaintances really mad have turned out to be lies spread by the Right.

In a future post, I may speculate on why this study turned out the way it did. [Done, here.] Is Politifact biased? (Check them out before you answer.) Or is it really true that politicians who are known for wearing Christianity on their sleeves lie more often than those who don’t? If so, why might that be? In the meantime, what do you think?

On Losing 99.999999% of My Future

One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes cartoons goes like this: Calvin finds a quarter in the grass and says, “Look! A quarter!! Wow! I’m rich beyond my dreams! I can have anything I want! All my prayers have been answered!”

Pause….

In the final frame, Calvin is down on his belly, rooting through the grass, saying, “Maybe there’s more,”

For most of my adult life, I thought my three-score-and-ten were a mere prelude to an eternal life to come. Life on Earth was significant only to equip us for an eternity in Heaven.

I am no longer convinced that there is a life beyond this one. In fact, I consider it unlikely. You would think that I would be depressed at having lost over 99.9999999% of my future. Strangely, I am not.

I find that I value this life all the more.

Having become convinced of a different story of how we got here, I am even more amazed than before.

What a privilege it is to be alive even for a few decades! I have found much more than a quarter in the grass. I have love, freedom, work I enjoy, unending interesting things to do, and beauty everywhere. Even consciousness itself is an incredible gift.

I think life is like a game. We each get a turn. When my turn nears its end, I will be gratified at all that has happened. Most fulfilling will be the relationships I’ve had with my family. A close second will be the feeling of accomplishment at having discovered a few things about the game itself. I will be glad I had the good sense to appreciate my turn while it lasted.

For me, that is enough.

I am so very thankful to have found just one quarter.

Bible Truth, Atheistic Assumptions and Conspiracy Theories

[Warning: This post is a Beagle’s Bark. Follow the link to see what that means.]

Today’s post is a fill-in-the-blank exercise. See if you can complete these sentences that I lifted from two very earnest websites.

Are these Scripture verses “mere poetry”?  Are they the silly myths of ancient, “primitive” peoples?  The Bible nowhere teaches the modern theory that _______________.

_______________ must bring their atheistic assumptions with them when they come to God’s Word.  A man stranded on an island with only a Bible could never dream up such things.

…modern science has documented for us ________ (yet have done an equally remarkable job in keeping these important facts out of our educational system),

Done?

The astute reader probably filled in those blanks with “man evolved from apes,” “Evolutionists” and “that macro-evolution has not taken place” or something along those lines.

The astute reader would be wrong.

The correct quotations are:

Are these Scripture verses “mere poetry”?  Are they the silly myths of ancient, “primitive” peoples? The Bible nowhere teaches the modern theory that the earth is in motion around the sun.

Christian heliocentrists, like “christian” evolutionists, must bring their atheistic assumptions with them when they come to God’s Word.  A man stranded on an island with only a Bible could never dream up such things.

…modern science has documented for us in bold fashion that the Earth is motionless in space and occupies the center of the universe (yet have done an equally remarkable job in keeping these important facts out of our educational system)

The first two quotations were from CrownOfChrist.net/geocentrism.html and the last was from GalileoWasWrong.com.

Yes, folks, the geocentric movement is alive and well. But none of my readers believe in geocentrism, so why did I bring it up?

I am hoping that my readers will see the dangers of using the above pattern of argument in their own consideration of science.

I am particularly hoping that they will avoid pointing fingers at “atheistic assumptions” and invoking conspiracy theories when evaluating the conclusions of mainstream science. A given scientist may or may not be biased, but let’s remember that there have been many hundreds of years of theological assumptions and Church conspiracy.

And the conspiracy by the conservative factions of the church has been much harsher. As far as I know, no scientist has ever sought to torture or kill a Christian simply because the Christian was a heliocentrist. But certain branches of the Church have a long history of persecuting scientists for views that were later proven correct.

In light of the Church’s bloody history what would be an appropriate attitude for Christians today?

I suggest that at a minimum an attitude of humility is in order.

If you have claimed that “what we see could not possibly have arisen by chance” and your science-minded friend says, “On the contrary, here’s a way it might have happened,” stop and listen to what he has to say. With a receptive mind.

If you have claimed that “morality is incompatible with evolution and must have been implanted by a Creator” and your friend suggests, “Why don’t you study what scientists in the field say before you decide it’s impossible,” take him up on it.

Science has a lot to offer. Why not listen to what it can teach us?