Friday, December 11, 2015

Sticks in the Spokes: Things that Break Cycles of Hate and Violence

As I child, I never liked going to church, but privately, I was always fascinated by some of Jesus' ethical teachings. While I haven't been a believer since my late teens, lately I've gotten interested in Jesus again; not as a son of God or savior, but as an ethical thinker--even a strategic thinker. His instructions to be merciful and forgiving, to be a peacemaker, to love your neighbor and even your enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to follow the golden rule--these all seem truly profound to me. They have the kind of counterintuitive, almost paradoxical power that you also see in judo, or the nonviolent action of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. It's not just that they're nice or kind, though they are. There's something deeper going on; something more profound than simple benevolence. These teachings also display a strategic sophistication that makes them extremely practical, at least in some circumstances. They combine soft-heartedness and hard-headedness in a really beautiful way.

What I've realized lately about people like Jesus, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King is that they were brilliant, practical strategists, who found ways to turn kindness and self-control into powerful weapons against hate and oppression (perhaps "antiweapons" would be a better term). The things they proposed--mercy, forgiveness, compassion, non-violence, love, etc.--all do the same thing very well: they break vicious cycles of hate, anger, fear, and violence. These vicious cycles arise because those darker impulses feed on each other in a self-reinforcing, escalating cycle. We all know how it works: insults lead to anger, anger leads to insults, and then to more anger, and then push, and then shove, until it spirals out of control.

It's like the wheel in the picture, where anger, fear, and hate lead to aggression and violence, and aggression and violence lead to anger, fear, and hate, and so on and so on. One political party insults the other, who insults back and adds a touch of demonization, which leads to more insults and demonization, until you get to the point where we are today in the United States, where millions of people literally hate millions of their fellow Americans. And then there's the even more vicious cycle, where we respond to Islamic terrorist attacks by starting wars that hurt innocent Muslims, then some of them become radicalized and commit terrorist attacks. So we drop more bombs, and encourage more terrorist attacks, and on and on. Martin Luther King described this cycle well:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy, instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate.
It's like fighting fire with gasoline--it just makes things worse. That's where things like non-violence, forgiveness, and loving your enemy come in. If hate and violence are a turning wheel, then these things are like sticks in its spokes. As Martin Luther King put it:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.
These sticks in the spokes of the wheel of violence may seem like weakness, passivity, or cowardice to the thick-headed, but they're actually incredibly powerful, and require enormous amounts of courage. It takes a strong, brave person to turn the other cheek rather than hit back.

All these things work in slightly different, but related ways to stop the wheel from turning. Mercy and forgiveness can stop it because the person forgiving renounces retaliation and hate, and the person being forgiven is not motivated to prevent, or respond to, violence with violence. Loving your enemies, or at least trying to understand their perspective (that's a whole lot more realistic, after all), is a way of defusing your own hate or anger, and allows you to see things from their point of view, if only temporarily. And that makes conversations with them more productive. Turning the other cheek, or at least responding to insults and aggression with politeness and restraint, works by shaming the aggressor; making them feel small and cowardly. The contrast highlights their own aggression, and uses it against them, the way judo uses an attacker's momentum against him.

Of course, there are problems with these tactics. The biggest, of course, is that people just don't want to do them. Because they're subtle and counterintuitive, and require restraint, it's hard for them to get very popular. Human beings find subtlety and restraint difficult at the best of times (I know I do--just because I appreciate how this stuff works doesn't mean I'm good at it). The fact that millions of people, for thousands of years, have cheerfully ignored the words of a man they think was God, shows just how difficult his instructions were.

The other problem with these tactics, unfortunately, is that they don't always work. Mercy and forgiveness don't work as strategic maneuvers if you're dealing with someone who won't return the favor. Turning the other cheek won't work with someone who will happily keep hitting you. Loving your enemies won't work if they take it as an opportunity to walk all over you. If you look at some of the things Jesus said (and Gandhi too, actually) he was incredibly radical about this stuff. Consider these verses from the Sermon on the Plain in Luke:
27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
This is some pretty radical advice. I don't know if Jesus was being deliberately hyperbolic, or if he really wanted his followers to go this far. Perhaps he did. In any case, I'm not going to give all my stuff away, or let someone who just hit me do it again. That's too radical for me, and I wouldn't expect anyone else to, either. But I still think it makes sense to take these things to heart, and follow them in moderation, because they really are both practical and kind, and that's a rare combination. No, it doesn't make sense to let people walk all over you, but it does very often make sense to forgive, to be merciful, to be compassionate, to be charitable, and to try to look for the good in people (most of them have some). It makes sense to be cool-headed enough to respond to aggression with politeness, because responding with aggression just makes that wheel turn faster. That doesn't mean being passive, or not opposing people who try to do harm (this is a key point--Gandhi and Martin Luther King practiced non-violent resistance, not passivity or appeasement). It just means responding to the fires of hate and aggression with water instead of gasoline.

And despite what the blustering macho men of the world may say, there's nothing silly or soft-headed about that--it's just good sense. It's a practical strategy that's worth doing even if you don't care whether you hurt your opponents or not. But if you do care, and you would rather be kind if possible, then it's got the advantage of being kind. And here's the thing: it's not just kind to your opponents, it's kind to you, too. As Kurt Vonnegut once said, "Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide." If you spend your time soaked in anger and hatred for your enemies or opponents, you're going to be miserable. Forgiveness is at least as good for the forgiver as the one forgiven.

The big trick, as usual, is discernment--deciding when it makes sense to use tactics like mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, non-violence, and loving your enemies, and when it doesn't. Again, I think it rarely makes sense to be as radical as Jesus and Gandhi were (Gandhi recommended non-violence even against the Nazis). Maybe what makes sense is to start with the easier, more moderate stuff. Not love--that's for experts. I really think too many people talk about love, when they haven't even mastered tolerance and non-hate. If you can't love your enemies, then at least tolerate them. If what they're doing can't be tolerated (and some things, such as extreme intolerance, can't be) then try not to hate them. Hate just causes poor judgement and makes the hater miserable.

It's all about judgment. It's not always possible, or desirable, to be a Jesus or a Gandhi. But if we can't be as radical as they were, we could at least listen to what they were saying, and meet them halfway. So far, millions of people (including many who worship him) act as though they were trying to do the exact opposite of everything he said. Surely we could do a little better than that? These cycles of hate and violence tend to spin out of control. In an age where our weapons have gotten destructive enough to wipe us all out, we have to get better at breaking those cycles. If we don't, they'll destroy us. Maybe that's another good reason to love our enemies. As a sage named Pogo once said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Mass Shootings: How Scared Should You Be?

I've never thought it made sense for me to worry about becoming the victim of a random mass shooting. First, worry alone has precisely zero effect on whether it will happen or not. All it does is make you more anxious and less happy. Second, I've always figured that if I do die before my time, it's far more likely that it will be from something like cancer or a car accident. As awful as mass shootings are, and as much as they need to be minimized, the average person's chance of dying that way are pretty small.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't realize that. This is mostly due to a sensationalist mass media, and to a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic. It's called that because humans estimate the prevalence of things by how easily examples of them come to mind--how "available" they are to consciousness. The problem with that, especially in a media-saturated age, is that unusually scary and disturbing events stick in our minds, giving us the illusion that they're far more common than they really are.

Knowing this, I've never gotten very worried about being the victim a mass shooting (or a terrorist, shark, or bear attack). But the other day, I finally succumbed just a little bit to the fear of mass shootings that has gripped the country in the last few years. I live in Colorado, where two of the most notorious mass shootings occurred: Columbine and the Aurora theater shooting. And now, this past Friday, a man in Colorado Springs went on a shooting rampage at a Planned Parenthood, killing 3 and wounding 9. Also, I work in an urban public library, so I deal with all walks of life--including some rather scary-looking and poorly adjusted people. So, I finally caught a little of the fear. I don't like to admit it, but I did. I started looking at some of the mentally unstable people I see every day, and wondering how likely it is that one of them could pull out a gun and start shooting.

So, I decided to look at some actual numbers, to check whether I was being silly or not. I wanted to look up the actual numbers of people killed and injured by mass shootings, and see they compare to the number of people killed and injured in car wrecks, plane crashes, falls, and so on. Since the numbers take some explaining, and are rather grim, here's the quick answer: I was, in fact, being silly. The average American should worry MUCH less about mass shootings than about car wrecks, accidental poisonings, drowning, and many other things--and you're really not that likely to die in those ways if you're healthy and careful. Yes, it's good to know what to do in an active shooter situation, but what really makes you safer are mundane things like watching your weight, not smoking, wearing a seat belt, and not abusing drugs or alcohol.

Now for the more in depth look at the numbers. When I started researching mass shootings, I quickly ran into a small problem, because different definitions of "mass shooting" yield dramatically different answers about how common they are. For example, the Congressional Research Service has a report that borrows the FBI's definition of "mass murder" for mass shootings, defining them as a shooting where four or more people are killed. The chart below is a summary of their data, which runs from 1999 through 2013.
Based on these numbers, there's been an average of just over 20 mass shootings per year during this time period, with around a hundred people killed per year. However, these aren't exactly the figures we're looking for, because they include incidents that aren't what most people worry about when they worry about themselves or their loved ones becoming victims of public mass shootings, including gang violence and other criminal activities, and mass shootings within families. Those are terrible things, of course, but they're different than mass shootings in public places, as in things like the Aurora theater shooting.

To get at those kinds of shootings, the CRS also looked at "Public Mass Shootings", which they defined as incidents in which "four or more victims were shot to death in one or more public locations, such as a workplace, school, restaurant, house of worship, or neighborhood, and the murders were not attributable to any underlying criminal activity or commonplace circumstance (e.g., armed robbery, criminal competition, insurance fraud, argument, or romantic triangle)". Here's a graph on that kind of event:

These data look a little less awful. The table below breaks down some of the statistical trends:

According to this definition of a mass shooting, there was an average of 4.2 incidents per year between 1999 and 2008, increasing to 4.8 from 2009-2013 (due mostly to a spike in 2012). The number of deaths and injuries per year also increased in that last five year period, with noticeably more victims killed, and twice as many (on average) wounded.

Looking at the numbers this way, it seems that the chance of being a mass shooting victim is quite small. Even in the last five years, when both shootings and casualties increased, there was an average of 70.4 casualties per year--in a country with over 300 million people. If you're like me, you don't have a visceral sense what 300 million actually means. To put it in perspective, if you tried to count every person in the US (counting around the clock) you would be at it for over a decade. If you tried to count the number of people killed in mass shootings in a year, it would take about a minute. So, your chance of being the victim of a public mass shooting, as defined by the Congressional Research Service, is infinitesimally small.

However--the CRS definition seems a good bit too restrictive to me. Using their criteria, for example, the recent Planned Parenthood shooting in Colorado Springs wouldn't count as a public mass shooting, because "only" three people were killed. But we all know this was the kind of event that most people think of as a mass shooting. The same is true of an event where multiple people are shot, but somehow nobody is killed. So how do we account for these "lesser" shootings?

Unfortunately, it's not easy to do. I haven't been able to find a data set that accounts for mass shooting incidents where less than 4 people are killed, but which also distinguishes "mass public shootings" from family shootings or things like gang shootouts. The closest thing I've found is the Mass Shooting Tracker, which is a crowd-sourced website that tracks any event in which more than 4 people are shot and injured, but not necessarily killed. While it is crowd-sourced--and should therefore be taken with some grains of salt--it does link each incident to a news report, so it's fairly credible. The problem is that it doesn't distinguish "public mass shootings" from other types of shooting in the same way the Congressional Research Service does, so, while the CRS data underestimate the numbers, the Mass Shooting Tracker overestimates them. But it's still well worth looking at, as a counterpoint to the CRS report.

According to the Mass Shooting Tracker, as of November 27 there had been 352 mass shootings in 2015, resulting in 447 deaths and 1292 injuries. Obviously, that's a lot more than the numbers we see with the CRS. It's not that the CRS is being dishonest--they're just using a far more restricted definition of mass shootings. In my opinion, the data set we really need is somewhere between the two, and would restrict the incidents to the kind of public shooting we are concerned with here, while tracking every such incident where 4 or more people are injured.

But we don't have those numbers, so perhaps the best we can do is split the difference, and take the average between the two data sets. Let's look at the Mass Shooting Tracker data for 2013, since it's a full year's worth of data. In that year there were 364 mass shootings, with 502 people killed and 1266 injured. Let's take the average of these numbers with the numbers from the CRS for the last five years of their data. That's comparing apples and oranges, really, but it's the best we can do.

This gives us the following sad numbers: 288 deaths, and 666 injuries (roughly) per year in recent years. Now the question is, how does this compare to the risk of being killed in other kinds of incidents, such as car accidents, falls, etc.? (It would get too complicated to compare non-fatal injuries, because it's tough to decide what counts as a significant injury). Here are some numbers for comparison. In the year 2013, these are the unintentional injuries that kill the most people, from the Centers for Disease Control:

You might be surprised (I was) to see that the leading cause of accidental death these days is poisoning--mostly overdoses on prescription drugs. In 2013, the average person was about 134 times as likely to die by accidental poisoning as by public mass shooting. Going by the restrictive CRS definition of a public mass shooting, the average person was 1042 times more likely to die by poisoning. Even with my more expansive estimate of public mass shootings, as many people die every three days by poisoning as all year by mass shooting. Next down the scale are motor vehicle accidents and falls, which kill 117 and 105 times as many people, respectively, as mass shootings. According to these numbers, the average person is slightly less likely to die in a mass shooting than they are to die in a bicycle accident. How often do you hear people worrying themselves sick over bicycle accidents?

Again, my point is NOT that mass shootings, or gun violence in general, aren't a problem in this country. They're absolutely a problem, and one that needs to be dealt with. My point is just that it doesn't make sense for the average person, who isn't involved in violent criminal activity or part of  a family with violence-prone members, to spend their days worrying about themselves or their loved ones dying in a mass shooting. It makes much more sense to worry about the things that are far more dangerous, like riding in cars and on motorcycles, abusing prescription drugs, getting old and falling, drowning, and so on. Better yet, stop worrying and take concrete steps to minimize the risks (see chart in the notes*). The same goes for diseases like heart disease, which kills over five times as many people as all unintentional injuries combined, and 2,122 times as many people as mass shootings.

Does it make sense to be sad about mass shootings? Certainly. Does it make sense to be angry, and angry with politicians who won't lift a finger to stop them? Absolutely. Does it make sense to live in fear of mass shootings? Absolutely not.

But...does that mean the United States doesn't have a problem with gun deaths? Unfortunately, no. In 2013, 11,208 people were murdered with guns (over three times as many people murdered as drowned). Another 21,175 people committed suicide with a gun, and 505 people were accidentally killed by guns. It's clearly a problem, and mass shootings are a part of that problem, albeit a much smaller one than most people think.

Still, even with our unconscionably high rate of gun homicide in the US compared to other developed countries, homicide is not a very common way to die, especially for people who aren't involved in violent criminal activity. According to the National Safety Council's sanity-promoting Odds of Dying chart, the average person has a 1 in 358 chance of being murdered with a firearm. That's much too high, but you're still 3 times as likely to die in a car wreck, and 51 times as likely to die from a heart attack or cancer. Mass shootings are a tragic, awful problem in our country, but they aren't worth living in fear over--especially since living in fear is letting the bastards win. I don't know about you, but I'm not going to do that.


* To take concrete steps to minimize the risk of various kinds of diseases and injuries, you need to know what which ones happen at different ages. Falls, for example, are a much bigger risk for older people than anyone else. The chart below shows what injury-related deaths are most prevalent for people of different age groups. To see totals for the population as a whole, see the far right column.

This data, and most of the injury data in this post, comes from the CDC's WISQARS statistics site, which is very much worth taking a look at.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Man in the Mirror

Steve was nervous. He had never liked flying, especially since 9/11, and he especially hated flying with his family. But here they were anyway, waiting in the terminal to go to his parents' place for Thanksgiving. It didn't help that President Trump was on CNN talking about his plan to ban Muslims from flying. Steve would have never agreed with this kind of talk before, but the more he heard it, the less outrageous it seemed. He looked up at his son, playing with his Han Solo toy, and thought about how he would do anything to protect him. "Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?"

Seeing their plane pull into the gate, he thought about how packed it would be, and decided to go the the restroom before they boarded. As he flushed and walked over to the sink, he was still thinking about Trump's proposal. He washed his hands, looked up in the mirror to check his hair, and jumped back, startled.

Looking back at him was a Middle Eastern man about his age, wearing one of those little caps some Muslims wear. He jumped back at the same time Steve did. Then they both realized there wasn't a mirror above the sink at all. There were actually two rows of sinks, back-to-back. Some had mirrors above them, while others just had a gap in the wall between them, so that it gave the the illusion of being a full wall of mirrors. The two men were looking at each other through that wall.

Steve looked down along the wall, saw what was causing the illusion, and then looked back at the man standing where his reflection should have been. He had a pained expression. "I'm sorry," the man said in an American accent. "I thought there was a mirror there. It just startled me for a second."

"Me too! No problem," Steve said. Then he laughed, "Man, that was weird, wasn't it?"

The man in the mirror laughed, too. "It really was. I thought I had a new face!"

They nodded at each other and walked out of the bathroom through separate entrances. Steve was still smiling, but he felt weirdly disoriented. Looking up and seeing another man in the mirror had made him feel disembodied, as if the boundaries of his self had fallen away, or expanded out beyond his body. He had looked up expecting to see himself, and found another person there--another man's face where his own should have been. For a second he had the sensation that the face in the mirror actually was his own; like he was seeing the world through the other man's eyes.

And then he realized why the other man had seemed pained as well as startled. He was a Muslim in an airport--he knew people were looking at him suspiciously. Some of them didn't even try to hide it. They just stared at him through hard, narrow eyes. He tried to ignore it and seem unobtrusive, but now he had scared a guy just by looking in a mirror.

Steve thought, "That can't be fun. Flying must be a lot more uncomfortable for him than it is for me" He wondered if the man had been watching Trump on TV, too, and how he must have felt.

Walking back to where his family was sitting, he saw that the man and his family were sitting in the chairs across from his wife and son. The man had a son, too, and the two boys were playing with their Star Wars figures. The Muslim boy had Luke Skywalker, and he and Han seemed to be in pitched battle with Boba Fett. Steve walked up and held out his hand. "Looks like our kids have met, too. I'm Steve. Where are you guys headed?"

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Blaming Innocent Muslims for Terrorism

It's 5 in the morning. I can't sleep. Yesterday, governors around the country declared that they would oppose having Syrian refugees in their states. And people loved it, especially in the red states. There was an outpouring of fear, hate and xenophobia on social media like nothing I've ever seen in this country. To get a feeling for it, check out the comments following the announcement by Asa Hutchinson, the governor of my home state of Arkansas.

If you know me, or read this blog, you know I'm no fan of fundamentalism--especially hateful or violent fundamentalism. I just flat out don't like it. Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism, Muslim fundamentalism, whatever--I think the world would be far better off without it. But what I dislike even more than fundamentalism is blaming innocent, nonviolent religious people--even fundamentalists--for the actions of a few extremists. I don't blame any of the Christians I know for the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan (yes, the Klan is emphatic about its Christianity). I don't blame the Jews I know for a few Jewish extremists in Israel. And I don't blame the Muslims I know for Al Qaeda or ISIS. Why? Because I don't think it's fair to blame the innocent majority for the actions of a criminal minority.

This doesn't just go for religion. It applies any time you have people blaming whole groups for the deeds of a few, and it is always wrong. You shouldn't blame all men for the few men who are rapists. You shouldn't blame all cops for the actions of a few brutal ones. You shouldn't blame all gun owners for the actions of a few murderous nuts. Why? I'm sure it's obvious to most readers, but let me state it clearly: because most of them are innocent. They didn't do it! The vast majority of them wouldn't do it.

This is not to say that you shouldn't point it out if a particular group has a problematic subculture, or that all groups shouldn't oppose their own rogue elements. The police, for example, have some rogue elements who think it's OK to brutalize certain people. Other police should speak out against that, as should citizens in general. Men should speak out against rape and sexual assault. Christianity has extremists like Westboro, or Kevin Swanson, who last week said that gays are "worthy of death" a conference attended by three presidential candidates. (That's why I'm more afraid of Christian extremists than Muslim ones--because they have the ear of powerful American politicians). People should absolutely speak out against this sort of thing, and should ask why those candidates didn't object to this kind of venom. Decent Christians in particular should speak out against it, partly because they're the ones the extremists might actually listen to (though I doubt it).

Likewise, I think it's obvious that there is a violent extremist subculture within Islam. It's a problem, and a big one. Islamic terrorists have done terrible, terrible things, and decent Muslims, and all decent people, should speak out against it. And they do! Every week I eat at a Middle Eastern restaurant owned by Syrian-American Muslims. They have pro-democracy banners around their restaurant, and Islamic magazines I read while waiting for my food. Those magazines routinely denounce terrorists like ISIS and Al Qaeda--calling them "barbarians" and saying they are harming Islam and Muslims (which they are--the majority of people killed by Islamic terrorists are Muslim, and every terrorist attack sparks an anti-Muslim backlash). So, yes, Muslims are in fact denouncing the extremists. That doesn't mean they've stopped them, but have Christians stopped the Westboro Baptist Church and the KKK? Have decent gun owners stopped the mass shooters? If you're a gun owner, should I blame you for the fact that you haven't put an end to mass shootings?

Anyway, in terms of Syrian refugees, of course they should be screened, as all immigrants are screened. But are we really going to preemptively blame them for terrorism? For the very terrorism that they are fleeing, and which they have seen much closer than most of us have? Is that your idea of American values? Does that honor traditions like "innocent until proven guilty", "freedom of religion", and the words on the Statue of Liberty? Is this who we are?

Besides, do we want to give the actual terrorists what they want? They want us to live in fear. Are we going to oblige them? They want us to fear and hate refugees, because they want strife between Islam and the west. They want an apocalyptic clash of civilizations. Do we really want to play along with a bunch of fanatical psychopaths trying to bring about the end of the world? I don't know about you, but I'd rather not.

But let's not stick with abstractions. Let's look at numbers. Earlier, I mentioned that it's wrong to blame men in general for the actions of a few rapists. I think most people would agree with me, and I think most men would feel pretty aggrieved if we started assuming they were guilty of being rapists until proven innocent. I know I would. But yesterday I started wondering how the numbers add up if you consider rape vs. terrorism. Is it as unjust to accuse the average Muslim of being a terrorist as it is to accuse the average American man of being a rapist? Actually, it's a lot more unjust. According to the US State Department, in 2014, terrorist attacks killed or injured 67,518 people worldwide. That sounds like a lot, but it's only about one per 100,000 people--most American cities would love to have a violent crime rate that low. Of course, Muslims are not behind all terrorist attacks, but Islamic extremist groups do account for the majority of terrorism casualties around the world (see State Department report). But let's briefly and unfairly assume for simplicity that all terrorist casualties are caused by Muslims, and look at the numbers. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. Terrorist casualties in 2014 amounted to one casualty for about every 23,700 Muslims.

Let me repeat that. One casualty for every 23,700 Muslims. That doesn't suggest to me that the average Muslim is very likely to be a terrorist. Does it to you? If so, consider this...

Rape estimates can vary widely depending on the definition, but a decent medium-range estimate is an average of 293,066 rapes per year in the United States (over four times the number of terrorism casualties worldwide). There are currently about 150 million men in the United States (of course, not all rapes are committed by men, but the majority are). Do the math, and you find that in the United States every year, there's about one rape for every 511 men. Compare that to the one-per-23,700 statistic for Muslims and terrorism. It would be pretty unjust to call all men rapists, but it would be a whole lot more unjust (statistically speaking) to call all Muslims terrorists.

Admittedly, those are quick calculations based on the research I've done in my free time since yesterday morning. It isn't a sophisticated analysis, but I think it still makes a point. If you think it's unfair to assume men are rapists until proven guilty, or that gun owners are mass shooters, or that cops are murderers, or that Christians are bigots, and so on and so on, then you should think it's unfair to assume innocent Muslims are terrorists. Now, could a Muslim refugee commit an act of terror? Of course. But so could an American-born Christian like the Westboro admirer who opened fire in a Louisiana movie theater recently. And a cop might murder somebody, and a previously-law-abiding gun owner might become a mass shooter. Sadly, these things will surely occur. We should do all we can to prevent them, but we have to realize there's a certain amount of risk to living in a free, open, and just society. Living in such a society--a society like ours at its best--can be scary and even sometimes dangerous. But it's worth it.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Being Good When Nobody's Watching: A Response to Ben Carson

Helix Nebula. Click for credits
This morning I saw the following quote from Ben Carson, former neurosurgeon and current Republican front-runner in the 2016 presidential race: 
Ultimately, if you accept the evolutionary theory, you dismiss ethics, you don’t have to abide by a set of moral codes, you determine your own conscience based on your own desires.
Carson is a Seventh Day Adventist--the same denomination as George McCready Price, whose ideas on "flood geology" set the stage for 20th century creationism. He said this in an 2004 interview with Adventist Review magazine.

It's a version of a common sentiment in evangelical/religious right circles: that if you don't believe in God, you have no reason to be moral. Actually, Carson's version is quite a bit more extreme than that. He's not just saying atheists have no reason to be moral. He's saying anyone who believes in evolutionary theory--whatever their beliefs about God--will "dismiss ethics". After all, he's smart enough to know that many Christians believe in evolution, too. Over half of  all Americans believe in some form of evolutionary theory, and the majority of Americans are Christian. So, here we have a man who may very well be our next president, and he is suggesting that the majority of Americans have no real moral foundation. 

I find this a little disturbing. I also find it a more than a little insulting. I don't much like being told that I "dismiss ethics", that I don't "abide by a set of moral codes", and that I base my conscience on nothing more than my own desires. If I were a Christian who believed in evolution, I would feel similarly slandered. The only reason I just find it irritating, instead of infuriating, is that I don't think Carson is deliberately insulting anybody. He's just saying things without thinking about how insulting they actually are. He actually seems like a fairly pleasant, funny guy. Still, what he's saying really is quite insulting, and deeply unfair to millions of decent atheists, agnostics, and progressive Christians. 

Besides, it's demonstrably untrue. How do I know? Because I'm an agnostic who believes in evolution, and yet I still have a conscience. I do abide by a set of moral codes. I do not, in fact, dismiss ethics. Neither do any of my friends, many of whom are atheists (and if they did dismiss ethics, they wouldn't be my friends).

I think Dr. Carson would actually concede this--that even many atheists behave as though they have a conscience and a moral code. What he and people like him seem to have trouble imagining is why. Why, if you don't believe in God (or in Carson's case, if you do believe in evolution), would you feel any need to be moral? 

To explain why, I'd like to tell a brief, sad story. A couple of months ago, not long after I had gotten a new car, I backed it into another car in a parking lot. It only dented my bumper a little, but it smashed the headlights of the other car and left a big crack in the bumper--the kind of crack that looks expensive to fix. But was early in the morning, and there was no one around. I could have driven away, and the driver would have never known who hit his car. 

So what did I do? I cussed a little, and then I got out a pen and paper and wrote a note explaining what had happened, and left my name and number. 

Why did I do that? It's not because I believe it's what God would want me to do--I'm agnostic, and I don't know if there's a God, or what She might want. I also didn't do it because I thought I might be rewarded for it in heaven, or punished for not doing it in hell. I very much doubt that either place exists, and I don't think doing something decent just because you fear punishment or seek reward actually makes you a decent person. So what could I possibly have been thinking? Before I say, I'd like to ask any reader who agrees with Dr. Carson a favor: take a guess. What do you think I was thinking? Can you honestly not think of any reason to I should leave that note, besides "God wants me to"? I doubt it, because I imagine you're a decent person too, so you can easily imagine reasons to leave a note. And I bet you can guess my reasons, which are as follows: 

I left that note because I put myself in the place of the other car owner. I've had people dent my car and run away, and it sucks. The fact that your car is damaged is bad enough, but there's also the extra indignity of feeling you've been wronged. That's the part that really galls--that somebody out there didn't have the decency to own up to their mistake.

So, if I don't want somebody to do that to me, then I can't very well do it to somebody else. More than that, I don't want to live in a society where people don't do the right thing when they think they can get away with it. If I want to live in a society where people are decent to each other, then I have to be decent myself. It's really as simple as that.

And I don't see why it should be so hard for anybody to understand. So let me end by asking the following question to folks who think like Dr. Carson: How would YOU like being told you don't have any ethics or conscience? I'm guessing you wouldn't like it any more than I do.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Gun Talk

The gun control debate makes me feel wishy-washy. I'm a liberal who dislikes gun culture, but I have mixed feelings about gun laws. The correlations between gun violence and gun ownership are really fairly weak, which means guns neither cause nor prevent as much crime as people say they do. I don't want to see all guns banned, but I don't think there's anything wrong with reasonable regulations on them. I think both extremes are wrong, and I suppose this post may upset people on both sides.

So I guess I'll start by upsetting the hard-core gun control types. But I'll work up to it slowly. First, the Second Amendment. I think it refers to a situation that no longer exists: a citizen militia in which people supplied their own guns. There was no standing army when the Bill of Rights was adopted.  In fact, people thought a standing army was a severe threat to their liberty. In that sense, the Second Amendment doesn't apply easily to these times. It linked gun ownership with the duty to serve in a militia. Those militias evolved into the paid service now known as the National Guard. Today, people want to keep the right to bear arms, even if they no longer feel the duty be citizen soldiers. And maybe they should keep that right, but it's worth noting how much the situation has changed.

Still, I'll concede that many of the founders probably thought of guns as a defense against tyranny. They were free-thinking, even radical, revolutionaries who participated in a war fought for the most part with individually-owned guns. They had clear memories of an occupying army; one which might return at any time. So, they probably thought it was necessary for individual citizens to own their own guns. Whether they would have thought modern, fully-automatic assault rifles were necessary, I don't know. I suspect some would and most wouldn't, but I'm certainly no expert, and I don't think we're bound to think as the founders thought anyway.

In any case, for decades legal scholars held that the Second Amendment protected a collective right for states to have armed militias. Only in the last few years have they started to see it as protecting an individual right to bear arms. The Supreme Court upheld that interpretation in 2008. I have to admit they were probably right. The Second Amendment probably was talking about an individual right to bear arms—but that right was tied, once again, to the duty to serve in the militia.

But the fact remains that many of the founders would have seen guns as a defense against tyranny. And that's another modern wrinkle: the idea that a gun will help you defeat tyranny is much less plausible today than in 1789. Even if you had an M-16 and a closet full of ammo, would that help you against guided missiles or drone strikes? Please. Still, an entire nation with guns in their households would be tough to boss around, even for a government with guided missiles. One household couldn't stand up to such a government, but several million might. And maybe one day they might need to. I do agree with the idea that government isn't legitimate unless it has the consent of the governed. But I think armed resistance is an absolute last resort. So did the founders, according to the Declaration of Independence: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

So, if the President starts quartering troops in people's houses, disbanding state legislatures, and so on, maybe people would be justified talking about rebellion. If he's just talking about waiting periods and letting the gays marry, then simmer down, minuteman. Some weak-minded people listen to that kind of talk and then go out and murder people.

I guess I've arrived at the part where I upset the gun crowd. So: even if the Second Amendment protects an individual right to bear arms, that doesn't mean this right is absolute. The First Amendment isn't absolute either. Slander and libel aren't protected under the law, nor are threats, fighting words, or dangerous speech like shouting fire in a crowed theater. Should we have the right to carry a gun into a rowdy bar where people are drinking? Should I have the right to carry a gun if I'm dead drunk? Do we really need more guns in crowded areas, where gunshots are likely to hit innocent bystanders as well as potential muggers? I don't think so. There's a balance to be struck, just as there is with freedom of speech. Even Antonin Scalia—not exactly a liberal—has made it clear that an individual right to have guns doesn't translate into an absolute right to have them, or to do whatever you want with them.

That's how I feel about gun law--ambivalent. What I'm decidedly not ambivalent about is the macho gun culture in the United States, which is somehow both scary and deeply ridiculous--like a wild boar in a tutu, or Walter from the Big Lebowski. I'm not bothered so much by people having guns as by certain attitudes surrounding guns. And I'm really bothered by those. I dislike the gun worship I see in this country, and I really hate the paranoia surrounding Obama, and the idea that he secretly wants to take everybody's guns away.

First, gun worship. I don't own a gun, but I do understand the allure. I've shot them (at inanimate objects), and yes, it's fun. You point it, there's a big boom, and something off in the distance has a new hole in it. But I dislike gun mania. I really do think it's akin to worship. As with religion, people slip into this elevated, reverential speech when they talk about guns, as though they're discussing some holy icon. There's a whole vocabulary, and even standard facial expressions.  People get this resolute scowl on their face (the one George W. Bush loved to use, though I think he might have borrowed it from Charlton Heston) and start talking about their “instruments of freedom”, or how there's just nothing like “going out to send some rounds downrange”. It's not a gun, it's a “weapon” or a “firearm”. Why all the elevated diction? And then there's the cliches: "from my cold, dead hands"; "if guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns"; "the door is locked for your protection, not mine"; "gun control is hitting what you aim at"; etc, etc. Gun people are the most cliche-loving people I've ever met. Can't you guys at least get some new ones?

And that reverential, stereotyped speech of the church of the firearm--what's that about? Maybe it reflects the fact that someone who talks this way sees himself (and it's usually a him) as a guy who's serious about standing up as a red-blooded American and protecting his family. And he knows his stuff. He doesn't shoot bullets out of a gun--he sends rounds downrange with his firearm (insert Charlton Heston scowl here). It all strikes me as puffed up and Walter Mitty-ish (is that where the Coen brother's got Walter's name? Hmmm). If you like guns, fine. Why can't you lose the posturing?

It's not like that kind of posturing convinces any reasonable person of anybody's toughness. Quite the contrary, actually. When I hear someone going on and on about how they always have their gun with them when they go to the city, or how they'll plug anyone who tries to come into their house, I think: you're a big ol' fraidy cat with masculinity issues. Guys who feel the need to carry deadly weapons wherever they go—and to tell everyone about it whenever possible—do not strike me as especially tough. Again, it's just the opposite. It makes me think, “You sound ridiculous and scared. Be a man and shut up about the guns already.” Do these guys really not know that's how they seem to most people?

I'm guessing there's at least three things going on with this kind of gun worship. One is just a fascination with guns and shooting them. I can understand that, as I said, as long as you don't forget how dangerous they are. Another is masculine insecurity, which is silly, but not necessarily dangerous. But then there's a darker impulse I see in some people. They don't just like to shoot inanimate objects. They like to shoot living things. And I'm not talking about hunting. This isn't about food; it's about killing something. There's a certain kind of guy where I grew up, for example, who just can't wait for an opportunity to shoot a dog that's wandered onto his property. And then brag about it. If you ever want to see my lip-curling contempt expression, tell me about the time you shot a dog. 

Not all gun lovers are that sort, I hasten to add. But I see hints of it in too many of them. Which brings me to another of the clichés you hear over and over again: “If somebody comes into my house and I need to defend my family, I won't hesitate.” I don't know how many times I've heard that line, more or less verbatim. And OK, fine, I would also shoot somebody if I had to in that circumstance. But some people seem fixated on the idea. As a friend of mine said, “All these dudes who just dream, just DREAM of someone trying to rob them so they can kill someone. Then cover up their murder-boner talking about protecting their family.”

Indeed. Some folks just dream about having an excuse to shoot somebody. They really do. And that's an ugly dream to have. If those people really had the safety of their household in mind, instead of fantasies of pulling a gun on someone, they would talk endlessly about their home alarm systems. After all, those work even when you're not there, and your kid can't find fit and look down the barrel--like he can with that revolver Daddy loves to talk about. Funny how I've heard the gun speeches hundreds of times, and never heard the home alarm speech even once. Why is that, I wonder?

I despise the bloodthirstiness I often see associated with gun culture, but I also dislike the idea that guns are somehow noble. Maybe that's actually what's behind the elevated speech people use when they talk about guns. Maybe they see the Second Amendment as sacred. If they see the freedom to have a gun as sacred, maybe they see the gun itself as sacred. Some guys really do seem to. And that doesn't make sense to me. Even if a freedom is worth preserving, that doesn't mean everything it allows is good. As a solid supporter of freedom of speech, I'll stand up for people's right to say things I hate. But I can still hate what they say.

Similarly, the right to bear arms might be necessary, but it's not particularly noble. Still less are guns intrinsically noble. They're machines for killing things at a distance. No, they're not intrinsically evil either. There's nothing actually malevolent about a gun itself, if it's never used to hurt anybody. But guns are used to hurt people, all the time. To the extent that this is true, even if guns are necessary for self-protection and preventing tyranny, then guns that aren't intended for hunting are at best a necessary evil. It would be better if we could have a society peaceful and free enough that they weren't needed. Yes, maybe such a society is far-fetched, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be a better one. I tend to think a society that venerates weapons is likely to be a more violent society (or maybe it's vice versa). Is THAT so far fetched?

Another attitude I dislike among some of the right-wing gun crowd is the assumption that someone who thinks guns should be regulated must secretly want to come and take everyone's guns away. Maybe they do and maybe they don't. I have met people who do, but I know I don't. I do want guns regulated, but I don't want them all taken away. If the government really started calling for a full ban on all guns, I would oppose it. But the government isn't calling for a full ban. People keep saying Obama wants to take their guns away. How do they know that? Calling for regulations isn't the same as calling for a ban, and most slippery slope arguments like that are fallacies. Taking a couple of steps in a particular direction doesn't mean you never intend to stop walking. If I put a little hot sauce on my food, does that mean I secretly want to pour out the whole bottle? No. There's such a thing as “the right amount” and it's rarely either ALL or NONE.

As for whether Obama really wants to come and take everybody's guns away, I really don't think he does, and I think people should consider giving him the benefit of the doubt. If you look at the White House web page on his gun plan, it specifically says “Most gun owners are responsible and law-abiding, and they use their guns safely. The President strongly believes that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms.” Now of course his administration is going to say something similar to that, but I don't think they had to include that part about an individual right. They didn't have to acknowledge the individual right interpretation recently ratified by a right-learning Supreme Court, but they did. Maybe that's just lip service to the more legally sophisticated crowd, but I'm not sure. I think they may just be acknowledging that the majority of people in this country believe Americans should have an individual, but not absolute, right to own guns. Maybe they even believe it themselves. If you want to claim someone has a secret agenda, that's an extraordinary claim, and extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I just don't see it. I don't think Obama really wants to come for people's guns. I think those who are sure he does are being paranoid, and mistaking pragmatic liberalism for extreme authoritarianism. Maybe I'm one of the “sheeple”, but if you think so, I say the burden is on you to show me credible evidence I'm wrong.

To sum up this intemperate rant:

1. The violence in this country isn't so much a problem with how guns are regulated as it is with the glorification of, and comfort with, violence that we have in this culture. The puffed-up firearm machismo is an expression of that culture. Sometimes it's harmless, but sometimes people take it to far. Guys that rhapsodize about their guns may never want to hurt anybody with them, but they need to realize some of the people listening to them might. They might get the itch to use that sexy gun for what it was, after all, made for, and kill somebody. How about we tone down the gun worship talk a little? Children hear that talk, and it molds their attitudes and goals. Weak-minded psychopaths hear it, too.

2. The Second Amendment does protect the individual right to have some sort of gun. But that doesn't mean you should be able to do whatever you want with that gun, or take it wherever you want. The question is not, “Should I be able to have whatever kind of armaments I want?” Nobody thinks you should—after all, the Second Amendment doesn't even use the word “gun”. It says "arms", and surely no sane person thinks I should be able to have arms like, say, tactical nuclear weapons. Even if the Second Amendment used the word “gun”, a gun could be some kind of heavy artillery capable of shooting a ten-pound shell over the horizon. Everyone with any sense agrees that there is a line to be drawn, beyond which a weapon is too deadly to be kept by a private individual. The question is, where do we draw the line? How do we come up with laws that balance liberty and public safety? Life is full of trade-offs. Liberty is a great thing. But it's not the only thing.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Agnostics for Jesus? Thoughts On Sincerity and Hypocrisy

Domenico Fetti, The Parable of the Mote
and the Beam
I'm not a vegetarian, but if somebody told me they were a vegetarian as they chomped down a burger, I would feel justified in questioning their vegetarianism. Similarly, I'm not a religious man, but if somebody says they're a Christian, and then starts expressing right-wing political views that are at odds with what Jesus actually said, then I feel justified questioning their Christianity. If Jesus said "Blessed are you who are poor" and "Woe to you who are rich" then surely it's fair to ask how a Christian can scorn the poor and glorify the rich? If Jesus talked about the value of forgiveness, peace, mercy, and turning the other cheek, then isn't it fair to ask how a Christian can support hawkish foreign policies and the death penalty? Similar questions apply to the religious right's lack of empathy for immigrants, support for public displays of piety, and so on, as I discussed in another post.

On the other hand, I have enormous respect for Christians who try to live according to the things Jesus actually said about things like forgiveness, mercy, judging yourself before you judge others, having compassion for the poor and downtrodden, and so on. The other day a friend from college, who is that kind of Christian, mentioned on Facebook that he thought the religious right had forgotten what Jesus actually taught. Of course I agreed, saying I could see very little resemblance between Jesus' ethical teachings and the policies of the religious right. 

But then a strange thing happened. One of my friend's Republican (or possibly Libertarian) acquaintances said he couldn't imagine how anybody could call themselves Christian and back a candidate who supports gay marriage or abortion. And here's what really brought me up short--this guy wasn't a Christian. He was an agnostic like me, but with right-leaning political views. He didn't seem to be a hardcore pro-lifer, and I couldn't tell that he really cared about gay marriage one way or another, but he was questioning the sincerity of Christians who didn't take the right-wing view of these things. Why? Because he wanted Christians to be on his side politically, so they would support the other conservative policies he seemed to care about more (taxes and guns, I think). 

"Wow," I thought, "are we both just being cynical here, in order to get the Christians on our side? Am I doing the same thing he is, but with a different agenda?" And the answer is: of course I am. So the next question is: should I do that? Is that bad?

I'm really not quite sure. I don't think it's terrible, and one thing that makes me feel better is that I'm not twisting Christianity to suit my purposes. I honestly think Jesus meant what he said about forgiveness, mercy, judgement, and so on, and I think Jesus cared more about them than he would have about things like abortion and gay marriage, for the simple reason that he never mentioned either of those things. 

Plus, I honestly agree with what Jesus said about forgiveness, mercy, giving, etc. Well, I do up up to a point--I'm not actually going to give everything I own to the poor, turn the other cheek if someone hits me, or loan most people money without expecting them to pay me back. Still, I do think all the basic ideas here are wise and beautiful, if not taken to such extremes (was he engaging in hyperbole? Who knows?) I don't know if Jesus was the first to talk about the power of non-violence and forgiveness, of the importance of seeing your own faults before those of others, and of the need to watch for hypocrites and wolves in sheep's clothing, but his teachings were the first I heard about them, so he has been a real influence on my thinking. Similarly, he wasn't the first to talk about the Golden Rule, or loving thy neighbor, but his teachings were the first place I encountered those ideas, back in Sunday school. The point is, I don't have to believe Jesus was the son of God, or that he died for my sins and rose from the dead, to take him very seriously as a teacher of ethics and compassion.

And I honestly do think the religious right is ignoring those teachings while saying they want a country based on Christian values. As John Fugelsang said, "if you don't want your tax dollars to help the poor, then stop saying you want a country based on Christian values. Because you don't." Of course, liberals don't necessarily follow everything Jesus said either. But here's the thing: they're not the ones claiming to. It's the religious right saying they want more God in government, not liberals. I don't agree with everything Jesus said, myself--not by a long shot. But I'm not claiming to be a Christian, or saying the government should be run according to Christian values. I just think that if you are saying that, then you ought to support policies that reflect what Christ actually said. 

But still, seeing another agnostic question the sincerity of Christians who don't agree with him politically--that gave me pause. I still think I'm right and he's wrong (otherwise I would have changed my mind), but maybe I need to question my own motives when I question somebody else's sincerity. What about my own sincerity? Am I just trying to bend their beliefs to get them on my side? Obviously, to some extent I am--highlighting the things about Christianity I agree with, and downplaying the things I don't. Is that a cynical thing to do? I could probably keep writing and eventually convince myself that it isn't. But I think I'll stop while I'm still uncertain, because that's probably the most honest thing to do. Jesus said to take the beam out of your own eye before pointing out the mote in others, so maybe now is a good time to check my eyes for beams. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Squirrel's Lament

Walking home from work today, I came upon a baby squirrel lying dead in a puddle beneath a tree. It wasn't a newborn--it had all its fur, but its tail wasn't bushy yet. It was still covered with short, fine hair, and curled up over the squirrel's head like it was asleep in the nest above. I thought, as I always do after seeing such things, "Why does nature have to be so pitiless? Is that really necessary? Does such harshness serve some purpose?"

The writer of the Book of Genesis wondered the same things, and tried for an answer. According to that account, humans are to blame for nature's harshness. It's our doing, and our punishment. "Cursed is the ground because of you", God declared, after Adam and Eve had eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Thorns and thistles spread over the Earth, and death and toil appeared for the first time. Not just for the first couple, either, but for all their descendants as well. 

But still, why the animals? Even if you accept the Genesis account as truth or as justice (I cannot accept it as either) the question remains: why should animals have to suffer for what two humans did? With the notable exception of the serpent, they didn't do anything to deserve it. In fact, if God had really wanted to drive his point home, he could have left the animals to live the carefree lives they led before the Fall. Then they could serve as a perpetual reminders to humans of how good they had it before they got so inquisitive. In any case, what would be the point of punishing animals for our transgressions? They can't even understand the story, can they?

But then, as I kept walking home, I reflected that things aren't as bleak as all that. I see no reason to think the Genesis account is true, and I'm thrilled not to believe I live in a universe ruled by a God who thinks it just punish the entire world--in perpetuity, generation after generation--because a single couple wanted to gain a little knowledge. A world like that wouldn't just be uncaring--it would be outright cruel and vengeful. I can handle living in an uncaring universe, but I don't think I could bear living in a cruel one. 

So, I lightened up a little. And then I lightened up some more when I saw my dog and asked him if he wanted to go for a walk (the answer is always yes, in the universal waggle-dance language of bulldogs). So out we went.

But then, without even thinking about it, I walked him right back past the puddle where I had seen the baby squirrel. This time, the mother was there. She was on the edge of the puddle, staring across it like a fisherman's widow. I wouldn't have expected that from a squirrel, but there she was. When she saw us she ran part-way up the tree and stared. I stopped and looked for her baby, but someone or something had already taken it away.

What was going through her mind, I wondered, as she sat staring across that puddle? Do squirrels grieve for lost children? Is she capable of counting her young, and finding that one is missing? Does she have the slightest clue what death means? Do squirrels have the imagination to ask why the world is so callous, or do they just accept it as the way things are? I don't know.

I don't know any of these things. I'm convinced she was upset, but I don't know how long it will last, or how deep her grief might run. As I walked away, she started scolding me, the way squirrels will do. For a second I had the insane thought that she had heard the story of Adam and Eve too, and was blaming me and my kind for the world's ugliness (would she be entirely wrong?). Then I came back to reality, and just felt sorry for her. I've been scolded by squirrels many times before, and I've always thought it was hilarious. After all, there's something ridiculous about being verbally abused by a rodent. But now, watching her standing in the crook of that tree, her little body shaking as she barked at me, I thought about why the others might have been scolding me in the past; what the circumstances might have been. And I don't think I'll laugh at them anymore. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Mortal Wild: Why We Can't Live Without It

“Beyond the wall of the unreal city … there is another world waiting for you. It is the old true world of the deserts, the mountains, the forests, the islands, the shores, the open plains. Go there. Be there. Walk gently and quietly deep within it." - Edward Abbey
"In wildness is the preservation of the world." - Henry David Thoreau

Coyotes at twilight near Boulder, CO. Grainy photo by author.
Last night after work I went for a walk in the suburban hills outside Denver. I was trudging along, my mind elsewhere, when a keening howl rose up from the valley below me. I looked down and spotted a coyote loping through a prairie dog town. The little rodent townsfolk yipped in alarm and dove into their holes, as the coyote vanished into the brush and joined its invisible compatriots for a chorus.

I grinned like a little kid, but the hairs lifted on the back of my neck, too. There aren't many sounds as eerie and primal as a coyote's howl. It's a sound from an older, wilder, more dangerous world--the "old true world" as Edward Abbey put it.

The coyote that made that sound still lives in that old, mortal world, and so does every other wild animal. Our civilization (such as it is) doesn't apply to it. That coyote is performing without a net--if it doesn't catch one of those prairie dogs it may starve to death. The prairie dogs live in the wilderness, too. They know what happens when they let their guard down, and the coyote sneaks up on one of them. They've seen it. We think it's cute when they bark, but for them it's deadly serious. Coyotes hunt them on the surface, hawks hunt them from the air, and rattlesnakes follow them into their burrows. If you walk across a prairie dog town, you'll find their little bones scattered around the mounds. Those cute little things are tough--tougher than we are. They live in the mortal wild, and they know it.

But we do to, even if we've tamed it enough to forget. The coyote's howl is a reminder that the old, dangerous, primal wilderness is still out there. It surrounds us, and even lives among us. We've built islands of relative tameness and security, but the wild is still there, even in the city. Just today I was walking through downtown Denver and saw a sparrow under a car, beating a katydid to pieces against the sidewalk. For that sparrow--and that katydid--the city is the mortal wild.

Of course, the fact that wilderness surrounds us doesn't mean we haven't dealt it a hard blow. When you fly over the great plains, you can almost think we've tamed the whole earth. We've imposed our own geometry across hundreds of miles of the landscape, cutting it into perfect squares that stretch off to the horizon. If you don't believe that humans are capable of wrecking the world--disrupting the climate, or even causing another of history's mass extinctions--I challenge you to fly over Kansas and contemplate the great checkerboard we've made from it. There were wolves down there once, and bison by the millions, and now there aren't, because we removed them. We're a species with unprecedented power, and we gain more all the time.

But the wilderness is still far more powerful than we are. Even in the giant factory we've made of the plains, there's wilderness. Tornadoes still dance across them like Shiva, flattening everything in their path. All we can do is get out of the way. But you don't have to see a tornado to know nature is still the boss out there. All you have to do is walk out into those Kansas wheat fields on a clear night and look up. There's the wilderness up there--the big cosmic wild, arching from horizon to horizon. People usually think of nature and wilderness only in earthly terms, but that's wrong. That's nature out there too, stretching across the light years.

The view of the Milky Way on a dark night is, or should be, a reminder that we're surrounded by wilderness as as much as any coyote or hawk. As Carl Sagan put it, "Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” We're still huddled around a campfire, surrounded by wilderness.

And yet there are those among us who don't know about the old and mortal world, or don't see it for what it is because they've romanticized nature into a Disney-style caricature. Millions of Americans are so disconnected from nature that they have to be told that it's dangerous. In Rocky Mountain National Park, as you emerge from treeline onto the tundra, there are signs listing the ways you can get in trouble up there--getting lost in the fog and snow, falling off a thousand-foot cliff, or being struck by lightning in one of the daily summer storms. At the top of the signs, in all caps, it says, "MOUNTAINS DON'T CARE." In the National Forests nearby, there are signs that say, "Moose attacks are serious!" We've created a world where people have to be told that moose attacks are serious. That's how far removed we are--or think we are--from wilderness.

And that's deeply unhealthy. That's really my point here. I've been focusing on nature's darker and more violent side, but I don't mean we should emulate that part of it. Nature is amoral, and we are not--or don't have to be, anyway. I'm just saying we need to respect the wilderness. We need to preserve it; learn from it. It is, as Edward Abbey said, "the old true world". It's been around millions of times as long as our fleeting civilizations. It's had time to try more things; to learn what works and what doesn't. And what doesn't work, doesn't last--that's one of the great lessons of the fossil record. If don't want to become fossils ourselves, we need to understand and respect nature; its vastness, its age, and its wildness. Ignoring it isn't respecting it. Romanticizing it as a benevolent Eden isn't respecting it. Trying to tame every corner of it isn't respecting it.

What is respecting it, I think, is recognizing that it got along just fine without us for all but the last tiny fraction of its history. On the largest scales, the wilderness doesn't need us. But we need it. We can't survive without it, of course, but we don't need merely to survive. We also need it to thrive. When I heard that coyote yesterday, I had just escaped from sitting in a cubicle all day, staring at a computer screen. I was still numb; the walking dead. But how can you stay numb hearing a sound like that? As the hairs rose on my neck--an ancient instinct to raise hackles I no longer have--my body was remembering the wilderness that created it. I was back, just for a second, in the old and mortal wild. And then I was alive again.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Why Oil Companies Don't Use Flood Geology

The Deluge. Gustave Doré
One of the best ways of testing young earth creationism and flood geology (the idea that most geologic structures above and below ground were created in the flood) is to ask whether they're useful in the real world. For example, do oil companies use flood geology to find oil? You can bet they would if it helped them find oil better than mainstream geology. After all, oil companies aren't known for their liberal agenda or their devotion to the scientific consensus (climate change, for example), but they are known for doing what they need to do to make money. They can't afford to use faulty science. So, do they use flood geology?

Absolutely not. But don't take my word for it. Dr. Donald Prothero is a paleontologist and geologist who has written the standard textbooks in sedimentary and historical geology as well as paleobiology. He has far more knowledge and authority in these fields than I ever will, so I'll just shut up and quote him:
The most significant implication of flood geology and its fantasy view of the earth is a practical problem. Without real geologists doing their work, none of us would have the oil, coal, gas, groundwater, uranium, and most other natural resources that we extract from the earth. There are lots of devout Christians in oil and coal companies (I know of many of them personally), but they all laugh at the idea of flood geology and would never attempt to use it to find what they’re paid to find. Instead [...] they have seen the complexity of real geology in hundreds of drill cores spanning whole continents and don’t even begin to try to interpret these rocks in a creationist mold (even though they may be devout Christians and believe much of the rest of the fundamentalist’s credo). If they tried, they’d find no oil and lose their jobs! As creationists keep trying to get their bizarre notion of flood geology inserted into classrooms and places like the Grand Canyon, we have to ask ourselves: are we willing to give up the oil, gas, coal, groundwater, and uranium that our civilization requires? That would be one of the steepest prices we would pay if we listened to the creationists.

See also:

Why I Left Young-Earth Creationism / Glenn Morton (by a geophysicist working in the oil industry)

Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters / Donald Prothero. This is where the quote above comes from. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Deciding What to Believe: A Speculative Infographic

Silly little chart made by author, using
“For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." - Carl Sagan
The little chart above probably should have been left to speak for itself, but I couldn't resist posting some commentary: When you hear someone say they believe something, it's natural to assume they mean they actually think it's true. But that's a risky assumption, because when many people decide what they're going to believe, truth seems to be, at best, a minor consideration. I've heard people say they believe things because they're fun to believe (ghosts, astrology, etc.); because they give them comfort (things happen for a  reason, heaven is for real*), and because they grew up believing them (usually ethical/religious beliefs--"I was raised to think..."). It's as though the word "believe" means something different to them than "To think something is true". 

That's always seemed odd to me. Of course, I'm sure I'm prone to the same sorts of biases, but when I say I "believe" in some fact or theory, I mean, "I think that's actually how reality is." I don't mean I enjoy believing it, or that it's comforting to me, or that I hope is true...I mean it's what I think actually is true, whether I like it or not. Ideally, I would also have evidence that it's true, but as I said, I'm sure I'm prone to my biases too, and I can't honestly say I can lay out the evidence for everything I believe.** But I at least try not to believe implausible things just because I want to.

When some people talk about what they believe, though, it's not just that they don't necessarily have evidence for their beliefs--in many cases; evidence is beside the point, because they're not even really talking about truth at all. They're talking more about what they want to be true than what is true. All the bigger slices in that pie chart above are reasons that people want things to be true, and they're all very questionable ways of deciding what really is.

The problem with believing what you want to be true, of course, is that reality isn't obliged to be what we want it to be. That means believing something just because you want it to be true really doesn't make any sense.*** It's just a way of fooling yourself, and when a lot people do it, it creates a hostile environment for truth, and fertile ground for falsehood. 

That's why I suspect that the world would be a better place if people took the idea of belief more seriously, and remember that's it's bound up with the idea of truth. If I just believe whatever's fun or comforting or familiar to me, then I don't have any real respect for the truth. To put it another way: I'm being dishonest. I'm telling myself what I want to hear, instead of telling myself the truth. And when I'm dishonest with myself, I'll be dishonest with others, without even realizing it. I'll be doing one of the easiest things in the world--spreading falsehood--instead of the hard, uncomfortable work of seeking the truth.


* Please don't misunderstand me. My point is not that that these things aren't true, even though I personally doubt them. My point is that people all too often believe them because they want them to be true, not because they have evidence for them.

**For example, I don't have data to back up my little chart above--but it's more to make a point than to make a precise claim, and I figure truth matters to most people quite a bit more than I'm suggesting there. 

*** There are exceptions, I think. Sometimes it makes sense to believe you can succeed even if you don't know for sure you can, because belief will actually help you do it. I also think it makes sense to have hope that life is worth living and humanity isn't a lost cause, for similar reasons.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Jesus Versus the Religious Right

Sermon on the Mount, Carl Bloch
Among the multitude of Republican presidential candidates for 2016, several are proud members of the religious right, including Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, and Ted Cruz. These candidates all really dislike the idea of separation of church and state, and say they want the country to be run according to Christian principles.

That's what they say, anyway, but when I listen to the other things they say, I get confused. If a Christian government is really what they want, I would think they would take the words of Jesus as a starting point. Surely it's not a stretch to think Christians are followers of Christ? But when I read Jesus' actual words, I have trouble finding much of a link between what he said and what these candidates say, at least when it comes to certain topics.

Instead, what I hear from these candidates is scorn for the poor and for immigrants, glorification of wealth, war, and weapons, advocacy of harsh judgments and punishments (instead of forgiveness and mercy), and support for public displays of piety. This is all confusing to me, because when I read what Jesus said about these things, it almost sounds like these candidates have gotten it completely backwards. Are they reading different Gospels than I am? Do they have a Bible with missing pages? I don't know, but one thing that's clear to me from reading Jesus' words is that he couldn't abide hypocrisy. Saying you're following Jesus, while advocating things that run counter to what he said, seems like hypocrisy to me.

But I can't imagine these earnest-looking Republicans are really hypocrites--not when Jesus spoke as clearly about hypocrisy as he spoke about anything. No, surely they've just forgotten some of the things Jesus said, and could use a gentle reminder. With that in mind, I've put together some words about Christianity which seem important to me, because they touch on some of the issues these candidates often discuss, and because they come from Christ himself. Even though I'm agnostic and an advocate of strict church-state separation, I find many of these quotations quite wise and beautiful, and it's been thought-provoking to see how they relate to each other--how Jesus' ideas on hypocrisy, for example, relate to his ideas on judging others harshly; or how his ideas on judgement relate to his ideas on forgiveness, and turning the other cheek.

Anyway, I've arranged them by topic. I've also printed off a copy of them and put them in my wallet, so I can remind myself--and others--about them when questions come up in the next few months. I'm pretty sure they will.


The Poor, Sick, and Needy

Blessed are you who are poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God. - Luke 6:20

Give to everyone who asks of you. - Luke 6:30, Matthew 5.42

...I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.

Then they also will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?’ Then He will answer them, saying, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ - Matthew 25.44-45

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31

See also the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) and the lesson of the widow’s mite (Mark 12:41-44, Luke 21:1-4)

Wealth and the Rich

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. - Matthew 6:19-21

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. - Luke 6:24

If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. - Matthew 19:21

Assuredly, I say to you that it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. And again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. - Matthew 19:23-24

But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation. - Luke 6:24

Immigrants, Foreigners, and People Different from You

If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? - Matthew 5:46-47

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31

The Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37, italics added)

25 On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life? 
26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”
27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”
29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have. 
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 
37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.
See also Old Testament verses like Exodus 22:21

Punishment and Forgiveness, Judging Others, War and Peace
(These themes are more intertwined than I ever realized before)

Blessed are the merciful,
For they shall obtain mercy. - Matthew 5.7

Blessed are the peacemakers,    
For they shall be called sons of God. - Matthew 5:9

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? - Matthew 5:43-47

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth. But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. - Matthew 5:38-39

For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. - Matthew 6:15

He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. - John 8:7

But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful. - Luke 6:35-36

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. - Matthew 7:1-2

Do unto others as you would have them do to you. - Luke 6:31


Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. - Matthew 22:21

The story of the widow's mite may also be relevant here.

Hypocrisy and Public Displays of Piety

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. - Matthew 6:1

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. - Matthew 6:5-6

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. - Matthew 23:14

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness. - Matthew 23:27

And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the plank that is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye. - Luke 6:41-42

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. - Matthew 7:15

A Concise Summary

Many of the saying above come from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew or the shorter version, The Sermon on the Plain, in Luke. Luke 6:20-42 is a nice summary. When I read it, it sounds nothing like the platform or policies of Jindal, Perry, Huckabee, and company. Am I interpreting it incorrectly?