Wednesday, March 21, 2018

No Womb, No Say

Whenever the topic of abortion or the laws regulating it arises someone can always be counted upon to inform any male dissenters from the contemporary status quo that since they can't get pregnant they have no business advocating legal restrictions on a woman's access to abortion or even speaking out on the issue.

The argument is specious, of course, but that doesn't matter to those who employ it since it packs an emotional wallop which obscures its logical inadequacies.

Even so, it's worth the effort to unwind its shortcomings, and Roland C. Warren does just that in a recent column at the The Federalist.

Warren, who is the president of a large network of pregnancy centers called Care Net, writes that,
I have heard this challenge to men so often that I have coined it the “no womb/no say” perspective. In short, since a man does not have a womb to carry an unborn child, he should have no say in what happens to an unborn child in the womb.
There's an irony in the attempt by pro-choice organizations which otherwise exclude men from having an opinion on the issue to nevertheless recruit men to support abortion rights. There's an even greater irony, as Warren observes, in the fact that the Supreme Court, which in 1973 discovered the right to terminate a developing human being hidden away somewhere in the shadows of the Constitution, was comprised of a group of old, white men.

Anyway, Warren defines the “no womb/no say” principle as the claim that, "Unless one is impacted by an issue or action in the most direct way, one should have no agency in making decisions about that issue or action", and proceeds to demonstrate that the claim is absurd:
Should a woman who is a stay-at-home mom and, therefore, makes no income outside the home, have a say on tax policy? After all, she doesn’t directly pay taxes for an income. Or, should someone who does not own a gun or has never been injured by a gun have a say in what our nation’s gun laws should be? Again, a non-gun owner is not going to be directly impacted if the access to guns is limited.

[C]onsider the Civil War. The South was primarily an agrarian society that, in large measure, was structured and directly dependent on slave labor. Indeed, a key aspect of the South’s “states’ rights” argument was that since the North’s society and economic system would not be as directly impacted by the abolition of slavery, the North should have no say. Indeed, “no slaves/no say” was the South’s proverbial battle cry.

Also consider the issue of voting rights in the United States. From our nation’s founding, voting rights were limited to property owning or tax paying white males, who were about 6 percent of the population. So the notion was “no property/no say.” And even when voting rights were extended to other men, women were excluded. Why? Because the view held by many men was that women were not and should not be as directly involved in the economic and civil aspect of American society as men.

Consequently, these men held a “womb/no say” perspective when it came to voting rights. Well, the Women’s Suffrage movement challenged this perspective, and in 1920, with the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, women were given the right to vote … by men.
Of course, it could be objected that in each of these examples people are, or were, affected by the policies and that's what entitles them to voice an opinion on them, but surely abortion doesn't just affect the mother and her unborn child (who might well be male, after all). A policy which allows 1.5 million unborn children to be killed every year is surely a policy that affects all of us, if not directly then indirectly.

To argue that because men can't get pregnant that they therefore have no business expressing an opinion on the morality of the policy - unless they hold the "correct" opinion - is just as fatuous as telling someone today that because they're never going to risk being enslaved they therefore have no right to voice an opinion on the morality of slavery.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Rolling the Dice

From time to time we've talked about the argument for an intelligent designer of the universe based on cosmic fine-tuning (okay, maybe a little more often than just "from time to time").

Anyway, here's a four minute video by Justin Brierly on the subject that serves as a nice primer for those not wishing to get too bogged down in technical aspects of the argument:
Brierly is the host of the weekly British radio show Unbelievable which is available on podcast. Each week Justin brings together believers and unbelievers to talk about some issue related to matters of religious faith. The discussions are almost always pleasant, informative, and Justin does an excellent job moderating them. They're usually what such conversations should be like, but too often aren't.

If you'd like to sign up for the podcast or browse the archives of past shows which have featured discussions on almost every topic related to religious belief you can go to the Unbelievable website here. For those readers who might prefer a slightly more elaborate explication try this post and the debate it links to.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Some Thoughts on Last Week's Walkout

Last week, thousands of students across the nation, rightly alarmed by the fact that they're sitting ducks on their gun-free campuses for any deranged nihilist who wants to be famous, walked out in protest of gun violence. One certainly sympathizes with their concern, at least the concern of many of them.

I qualified that last sentence because, despite the media's apotheosis of the students and their demonstration, decades of teaching high school students has made me both cautious and curious.

I wonder, for example, how many of the young men who joined those demonstrations went home that afternoon and sat down to play violent video games in which the object is to kill as many virtual enemies as possible.

I wonder, too, how many students who walked out of their classes just wanted to get out of school or to stick their thumb in the eye of school authorities or were otherwise indifferent to the fears that motivated their classmates.

Many schools of course condoned the walkouts, but I wonder how enthusiastically schools and the media would've supported these students had they been demonstrating against the vast number of people slaughtered in our nation's abortion clinics or the hundreds of people killed every year by illegal immigrants.

I wonder what the media would've said about the exploitation of five to twelve year olds by adults who used children as props in these demonstrations had the cause they were protesting been, say, the devastation wrought on their families by liberal policies like easy divorce and other fallout from the sexual revolution.

I wonder, also, how Hollywood celebrities can piously deplore gun violence in his country while making their living performing in movies which glorify precisely that very kind of violence.

I wonder, finally, how many of the politicians and journalists who used this walkout as another lever to weaken the voters' resistance to disarming the citizenry themselves employ bodyguards or carry weapons.

In other words, although I'm sure thousands of those students were sincerely and justly concerned about the terrible carnage that's been visited upon our schools over the last decade or two, I nevertheless wonder how much hypocrisy we were treated to last week by some of their schoolmates and faculty and even more by our media and politicians.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Why We Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Millions of Americans, many of them descendents of Irish immigrants, celebrate their Irish heritage by observing St. Patrick's Day today. We're indebted to Thomas Cahill and his best-selling book How The Irish Saved Civilization for explaining to us why Patrick's is a life worth commemorating.

As improbable as his title may sound, Cahill weaves a fascinating and compelling tale of how the Irish in general, and Patrick and his spiritual heirs in particular, served as a tenuous but crucial cultural bridge from the classical world to the medieval age and, by so doing, made Western civilization possible.

Born a Roman citizen in 390 A.D., Patrick had been kidnapped as a boy of sixteen from his home on the coast of Britain and taken by Irish barbarians to Ireland. There he languished in slavery until he was able to escape six years later. Upon his homecoming he became a Christian, studied for the priesthood, and eventually returned to Ireland where he would spend the rest of his life laboring to persuade the Irish to accept the Gospel and to abolish slavery.

Patrick was the first person in history, in fact, to speak out unequivocally against slavery and, according to Cahill, the last person to do so until the 17th century.

Meanwhile, Roman control of Europe had begun to collapse. Rome was sacked by Alaric in 410 A.D. and barbarians were sweeping across the continent, forcing the Romans back to Italy, and plunging Europe into the Dark Ages.

Throughout the continent unwashed, illiterate hordes descended on the once grand Roman cities, looting artifacts and burning books. Learning ground to a halt and the literary heritage of the classical world was burned or moldered into dust. Almost all of it, Cahill claims, would surely have been lost if not for the Irish.

Having been converted to Christianity through the labors of Patrick, the Irish took with gusto to reading, writing and learning. They delighted in letters and bookmaking and painstakingly created indescribably beautiful Biblical manuscripts such as the Book of Kells which is on display today in the library of Trinity College in Dublin. Aware that the great works of the past were disappearing, they applied themselves assiduously to the daunting task of copying all surviving Western literature - everything they could lay their hands on.

For a century after the fall of Rome, Irish monks sequestered themselves in cold, damp, cramped mud or stone huts called scriptoria, so remote and isolated from the world that they were seldom threatened by the marauding pagans. Here these men spent their entire adult lives reproducing the old manuscripts and preserving literacy and learning for the time when people would be once again ready to receive them.

These scribes and their successors served as the conduits through which the Graeco-Roman and Judeo-Christian cultures were transmitted to the benighted tribes of Europe, newly settled amid the rubble and ruin of the civilization they had recently overwhelmed.

Around the late 6th century, three generations after Patrick, Irish missionaries with names like Columcille, Aidan, and Columbanus began to venture out from their monasteries and refuges, clutching their precious books to their hearts, sailing to England and the continent, founding their own monasteries and schools among the barbarians and teaching them how to read, write and make books of their own.

Absent the willingness of these courageous men to endure deprivations and hardships of every kind for the sake of the Gospel and learning, Cahill argues, the world that came after them would have been completely different. It would likely have been a world without books. Europe almost certainly would have been illiterate, and it would probably have been unable to resist the Muslim incursions that arrived a few centuries later.

The Europeans, starved for knowledge, soaked up everything the Irish missionaries could give them. From such seeds as these modern Western civilization germinated. From the Greeks the descendents of the Goths and Vandals learned philosophy, from the Romans they learned about law, from the Bible they learned of the worth of the individual who, created and loved by God, is therefore significant and not merely a brutish aggregation of matter.

From the Bible, too, they learned that the universe was created by a rational Mind and was thus not capricious, random, or chaotic. It would yield its secrets to rational investigation. Out of these assumptions, once their implications were finally and fully developed, grew historically unprecedented views of the value of the individual and the flowering of modern science.

Our cultural heritage is thus, in a very important sense, a legacy from the Irish. A legacy from Patrick. It is worth pondering on this St. Patrick's Day what the world would be like today had it not been for those early Irish scribes and missionaries thirteen centuries ago.

Buiochas le Dia ar son na nGael (Thank God for the Irish), and I hope you have a great St. Patrick's Day.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Stephen Hawking, R.I.P.

Perhaps no contemporary scientist has acquired the cultural cache and fame that Stephen Hawking managed to accrue during his career as a physicist. He even had a movie made about his life during his lifetime.

Hawking died Wednesday at the age of 76 which was itself an amazing achievement since he had suffered ever since the 1960s from ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that usually claims its victims long before they reach their seventies. Hawking, however, was fortunate in the quality of his medical care, the love of the people around him and his own strength of will and humor.

A piece at New Scientist offers a good overview of his life and his contribution to cosmology. It opens with this:
Stephen Hawking, the world-famous theoretical physicist, has died at the age of 76.

Hawking’s children, Lucy, Robert and Tim said in a statement: “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today.

“He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years. His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world.

“He once said: ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him for ever.”

The most recognisable scientist of our age, Hawking holds an iconic status. His genre-defining book, A Brief History of Time, has sold more than 10 million copies since its publication in 1988, and has been translated into more than 35 languages. He appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory. His early life was the subject of an Oscar-winning performance by Eddie Redmayne in the 2014 film The Theory of Everything.

He was routinely consulted for oracular pronouncements on everything from time travel and alien life to Middle Eastern politics and nefarious robots. He had an endearing sense of humour and a daredevil attitude – relatable human traits that, combined with his seemingly superhuman mind, made Hawking eminently marketable.

But his cultural status – amplified by his disability and the media storm it invoked – often overshadowed his scientific legacy. That’s a shame for the man who discovered what might prove to be the key clue to the "theory of everything", advanced our understanding of space and time, helped shape the course of physics for the last four decades and whose insight continues to drive progress in fundamental physics today.

Hawking’s research career began with disappointment. Arriving at the University of Cambridge in 1962 to begin his PhD, he was told that Fred Hoyle, his chosen supervisor, already had a full complement of students. The most famous British astrophysicist at the time, Hoyle was a magnet for the more ambitious students. Hawking didn’t make the cut. Instead, he was to work with Dennis Sciama, a physicist Hawking knew nothing about. In the same year, Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a degenerative motor neurone disease that quickly robs people of the ability to voluntarily move their muscles. He was told he had two years to live.

Although Hawking’s body may have weakened, his intellect stayed sharp. Two years into his PhD, he was having trouble walking and talking, but it was clear that the disease was progressing more slowly than the doctors had initially feared. Meanwhile, his engagement to Jane Wilde – with whom he later had three children, Robert, Lucy and Tim – renewed his drive to make real progress in physics.
There's much more about Hawking's scientific work at the link. His philosophical ideas seemed sometimes ill-informed, as in his book The Grand Design, but he was clearly a scientific genius and an amazing human being.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dialogue "Partners"

I’ve been reflecting lately on why some people, even some friends, are difficult to have a conversation with. There are some people with whom it's easier to dialogue via email than it is face-to-face, and I've been wondering why that is, exactly.

I've arrived at the conclusion that in my experience there are at least six types of conversation "partners" and five of them are hard to engage with in any meaningful way. Readers may be able to come up with more than six types, I don't claim my taxonomy to be exhaustive, but here are the six that I've encountered:

One type consists of those who seem constantly distracted while you're talking to them. In the middle of what you're trying to say they're constantly looking away as if something else is capturing their interest, they're staring out the window or fidgeting with their phone or calling out to acquaintances who happen by. This is a behavior we've all come to expect from unmannered children, but it's disconcerting to have to endure it from an adult. The person is either rude or suffers from ADD.

A second type is the individual who expatiates interminably on whatever the topic of the moment may be, never permitting you an opportunity to insert even the slightest contribution to the matter beyond a grunt of assent now and then. You can scarcely utter a word before your dialogue "partner" seizes hold of the conversation again. A discussion with this person consists of him talking and you listening. You're expected to essentially play the role of audience to his monologue. This conversational type combines rudeness with narcissism.

A third type is the fellow (or lady) who appears to be listening to you but who is in fact mulling over in his mind what he wants to say as soon as you shut up. Like the previous two, this individual doesn't much care about what you think, only about what he thinks.

Then there's the individual who gets angry, aggressive or defensive, as soon as you offer a dissenting opinion to whatever he or she has happened to say or believe. Some people simply cannot brook any disagreement no matter how politely expressed. The previous three types may be tolerable (barely) if taken in infrequent doses, but this type rarely is. This person is just unpleasant to try to talk to, at least whenever the dialogue turns to matters upon which there are divergent points of view.

Another type of interlocutor is the one who dismisses your opinions with a disdainful gesture or joke, or changes the subject, or otherwise treats your words as though none of them are really worth listening to. This maneuver establishes them in their own eyes, perhaps unconsciously, as superior or dominant, somewhat like type two. The individual is not only arrogant but, like all the other preceding types, rude as well.

The last type is the individual who genuinely makes an effort to listen to you, to understand what you're saying and gives you time to develop your thought fully before responding. They're a pleasure to spend time with and one always looks forward to conversing with, and learning from, such people.

I know we all sometimes take on the aspect of each of these types. We dialogue differently with different people and sometimes fall into one or more of these types, even in the same conversation, but wouldn't it be wonderful if we, and everyone else, were, most of the time, more like the last type.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The End of Secularism

Some years ago a professor of political science named Hunter Baker came out with a fine book titled The End of Secularism. The problem Baker addressed in his work was the largely successful attempt in the latter part of the 20th century to purge religious sentiments from the public square and to instill in our everyday life an assumption of, or bias toward, secularism.

His main argument is that politics simply cannot be separated from religion, that the secularist alternative is neither neutral nor desirable, and that it will ultimately fail. Secularism should be seen not as the only reasonable occupant of the public square but rather as one competitor among others jockeying to be heard in the marketplace of ideas.

Secularism is not to be confused with the separation of church and state. The latter refers to institutional independence. The former refers to the separation of religion from public life. Separation of church and state is a good thing for everyone involved. The separation of religion from public life is not.

Baker argues persuasively that the courts have erred in seeing the First Amendment as a prohibition of religious expression in taxpayer subsidized spaces. The establishment clause ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion...") was not about religious freedom at all. It was about who had jurisdiction in church/state matters.

The Founders were saying that the role of religion would be a matter for the several states to resolve each for themselves, and that the federal government had no business injecting itself into what was a state matter. Each state was to be free to develop its own relationship with religion in whatever way it chose without the federal government telling it what it could or couldn't do.

Of course, that's not how our courts have chosen to interpret the Amendment. They've ruled, in effect, that the First Amendment is a mandate for secularism, which actually privileges one religious view - secularism - above all others.

Baker traces the uneasy history of church state relations from the early Roman church to the present and attributes the rise of secularism in the West to three main 19th century developments: The emergence of German higher criticism, the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, and the schisms wrought by the Civil War and slavery in both the nation and the church. The clincher, though, was the Scopes Trial in 1926 and its aftermath.

The trial was a humiliation for Christian fundamentalism and launched secularism on a trail of victories for the next sixty years that made it seem invincible.

Today, however, the picture is much different. Since the latter part of the 20th century secularism has come under intense scrutiny by "its own advocates, conservative Christians, other conservative religionists, and postmoderns." The critique of secularism includes the irony that secularists have absorbed as their own the values of our common Christian heritage even as they claim that secular thinking is actually the source of these values.

Baker spends several pages on Stanley Fish's critique of the secularist project and why it is doomed to fail. For example, "Bracketing off religion does not solve the problem of toleration. It just disadvantages one set of orthodoxies from interacting with the many secular orthodoxies roaming free in a liberal society." This is true. It also privileges the secularist orthodoxies by essentially insulating them from criticism by banning the opponents most likely to present the most powerful critiques - religious opponents - from the public square.

We must exclude religious reasons and motivations from our public discourse, the secularist argues, because we need to allow only viewpoints that are accessible to everyone and held by everyone in the public arena. The assumption, however, that secular viewpoints are somehow metaphysically neutral is a fraud. The secularist is no more disinterested than is the religious citizen and for him to claim that he should be allowed to judge what passes for legitimate discourse is like permitting a baseball pitcher the prerogative of calling the balls and strikes.

All public discourse reduces to two fundamental visions of reality. One maintains that the universe is the product of a rational, personal, and good creator and the other holds that everything is a result of chance and impersonal forces. The secularist wants to rule the former out of court and allow only the latter in the public square, but conveniently, the latter view happens to be his own. Postmodern thinkers like Fish have been particularly adept at pointing out the self-serving nature of the attempt to establish a monopoly for one's own view while maintaining the pretense of neutrality.

Baker makes the interesting observation that although secularism serves essentially the same role in the Democratic party that religion serves in the GOP, the media, though eager to report on the influence religion has among Republicans, rarely reports on the influence secularism has among Democrats. One never hears, for instance, how the Democrats have "shored up their base among the unchurched, atheists and agnostics."

We're often reminded that schools must not teach religious values, but secularist values like environmental attitudes and fads, tolerance, opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia are all deemed perfectly legitimate topics for taxpayer-funded schools. In other words, taking Judeo-Christian religion out of the public square does not leave the square religion-free. Rather, it leaves secularism as the only religion to be allowed a voice in our public deliberations.

There's much more in Baker's relatively short (194 pages) book, and I recommend it to anyone interested in Church/State issues and the role of religion in public life.