Friday, December 31, 2010

An Atheist's Dilemma

It's not easy being an intellectually honest atheistic lefty in America. Just ask philosopher Michael Ruse who gets insulted by his left-wing allies simply for raising honest and incisive questions. For example, in a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, he relates how Eugenie Scott, who heads up the National Center for Science Education, called him "dumb" for posing this perfectly reasonable conundrum:
[Evolutionary biologist David] Barash and I are united in thinking that Creationism (and the rest) are religion, and that they should not be taught in biology (or other science classes) of the nation—the publicly financed ones, that is.

So my question (and it is a genuine one, to which I don’t have an answer) to David Barash is this....[I]f you accept modern science, then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept—is false. Is it then constitutional to teach science?
There are several fascinating things to note in what Ruse says here.

First, in his mind, science entails the falsity of religious belief. Second, this being so, teaching science to students is tantamount to teaching that religion is false. Thus, if creationism (or intelligent design) can't be taught because it entails religious conclusions about the world, how can science be taught in public schools if it does the same thing?

Ruse is genuinely perplexed by the problem, as well he should be.

We've posed this very question ourselves many times in the past, albeit in slightly different ways, and it's gratifying to see an atheist recognizing the problem.

One way we've put the difficulty is this: The basic claim of intelligent design is that natural forces and processes are not by themselves adequate to account for the origin, structure and diversity of both the universe and life. If that's a religious claim (which it's not, but never mind that now) and is constitutionally disqualified from being presented in a public school science classroom, how is it that its negation - the claim that physical forces are adequate to account for the origin, structure and diversity of the universe and life - is constitutionally permissable? If the claim P is religious then surely the claim not-P is also religious.

Parenthetically, I happen to disagree with Ruse that science entails atheism (It would certainly be awkward to try to convince Isaac Newton or dozens of other giants in the history of science that it does), but a lot of his fellow atheists believe it, so it would be interesting to see how they respond to his consternation. Perhaps some of them will have something more helpful to say than that his puzzlement is just "dumb".

Thanks to Bradford at Telic Thoughts for calling Ruse's article to our attention.

What Women Want

Dennis Prager seems to know his way around both the male and female psyches. In an article at NRO he explains to us what it is that women want and, in the telling, what men want as well. If you're at all interested in the relationship between the sexes this relatively short piece contains some very good advice.

Prager not only tells us what women want most from a man, and what men want most from a woman (it's not what you think), he also tells us what sort of man a woman is going to find most attractive. I don't want to give anything away, but I will mention that what he says is about as incendiary in some politically correct circles as napalm at a paper mill. It all makes for good fun and tasty food for thought.

More on the Ethics of Abortion

A few days ago we discussed an exchange between Michael Egnor and John Rosenau on the subject of abortion.

Subsequent to Egnor's response to Rosenau a blogger who goes by the name of Tantalus Prime posted a further series of questions for Egnor to answer. The questions are interesting even if Tantalus' insolence is off-putting.

His challenge to Egnor can be found here. Egnor's response, which is very good (though I don't agree with all of it), is here.

A big part of the case Tantalus puts to Egnor and, indeed, to anyone who is pro-life, is in this paragraph:
Egnor asserts that humanity is a discrete, not a continuous variable. If so, then would he kindly point to the exact point at which the human begins? After all, fertilization itself is a multi-step process. So, where is it? When the sperm breaches the oocyte membrane? Formation of the pro-nuclei? Initial DNA replication? Degeneration of the pro-nuclei membrane? Formation of the mitotic spindle? Fusion of the chromosomes? Division of the chromosomes and formation of the first daughter cells? This really should be an easy answer for Egnor. Since biological science affirms that there is a discrete distinction between human and gametes, pointing to that magic point should be trivial.
Egnor's response to this and Tantalus' other questions is worth checking out.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

African Genesis

Back when cosmologists first hypothesized that the universe began in an explosion essentially out of nothing, many scientists scoffed and some squirmed. The idea sounded a bit too much like what theologians had been saying for centuries, and the implications of a sudden ex nihilo beginning of the universe was repugnant to those who ridiculed its theological echoes. Consequently, there was a lot of hostility to the theory (Fred Hoyle, for example, referred to it as the Big Bang. He intended this to be a term of derision, but the name stuck) until the discovery by Penzias and Wilson in 1963 of the predicted vestigial energy from this explosion made further resistance to it futile.

I wonder if there won't be a similar reaction to the recent discovery in Israel of human teeth that are twice as old as fossil humans found in Africa. Up till now it has been paleontological dogma that, contrary to the tradition of the world's monotheistic religions, mankind's genesis was not in the Middle East but in Africa and from there he subsequently dispersed around the globe.

Now there appears to be reason to think that the out-of-Africa theory is incorrect. Unless the evidence is misleading it appears that human beings were in the Middle East 200,000 years before they appeared in Africa.

Here's an excerpt from the report on this discovery in the Daily Mail:
Archeologists from Tel Aviv University say eight human-like teeth found in the Qesem cave near Rosh Ha’Ayin - 10 miles from Israel’s international airport - are 400,000 years old, from the Middle Pleistocene Age, making them the earliest remains of homo sapiens yet discovered anywhere in the world.

The size and shape of the teeth are very similar to those of modern man. Until now, the earliest examples found were in Africa, dating back only 200,000 years.

Other scientists have argued that human beings originated in Africa before moving to other regions 150,000 to 200,000 years ago.

Homo sapiens discovered in Middle Awash, Ethiopia, from 160,000 years ago were believed to be the oldest 'modern' human beings.
I'm reminded of the closing lines of astronomer Robert Jastrow's book God and the Astronomers. Jastrow had no religious predilections, but as he concluded his account of how modern discoveries in cosmology, particularly the Big Bang, were pretty much what would be expected if the Judeo-Christian cosmology were true, he writes: “For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Next thing you know a team of archeologists will discover Noah's ark and atheistic naturalists all across the land will have to be kept away from bridges and high buildings.

The Year's Movies

Continuing our look back at the year just ending I offer here a list of the films I viewed in 2010 with a few comments or descriptions. I didn't see as many movies as I would have liked, but each of the ones I did see I feel I could recommend, albeit for different reasons, of course, and not to the same people. Each of them, in their own way, was worth the time spent to watch:
  • Book of Eli - A post apocalyptic story that blends Christian faithfulness with Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Has Denzel Washington ever made a bad movie?
  • The Blind Side - A touching film based upon the true story of Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Michael Oher, it's about a family's compassion and willingness to help a young man surmount awful circumstances. Unfortunately, the film's writers, producers and directors understand neither Christian evangelicals nor high school football programs.
  • Into Great Silence - A documentary about life in a monastery in which the monks rarely speak. It may not sound like it would fascinating, but it is.
  • Synecdoche, New York - A well-crafted glimpse of the existential emptiness of modern life without God. I don't know if that was what the filmmaker had in mind, but that's certainly what he communicates.
  • The Insider - Based on a true story, the film depicts the pressures faced by whistle-blowers in corporate America. Very well-acted.
  • The Constant Gardener - An outstanding tale of courage of a man's determination to get to the bottom of his wife's apparent infidelity and murder in Africa. Lots of plot twists and turns that keep the viewer guessing throughout whether the wife really had been unfaithful to her husband.
  • The Chosen - A cinematic rendition of the Chaim Potok novel of the same name.
  • Angels & Demons - An enjoyable romp with Tom Hanks through the streets of Rome in pursuit of power-mad villains. Based on Dan Brown's novel.
  • The Stoning of Soraya M. - The true story of a an Iranian woman falsely accused of adultery by her husband so that he could escape his marriage in order to philander. The penalty in Iran for adultery is death by stoning.
  • Sin Nombre - A powerful account of the ordeal millions of illegal immigrants have been willing to endure in order to get into this country.
  • A Serious Man - Another film on the existential absurdity of life. This one by the Coen brothers, portrays the travails of a modern day Job-like character. At once funny and tragic.
  • The Class - A good film for anyone who would like to know why kids go through school without learning anything. It's filmed in France, but the school it depicts doubtless has numerous counterparts in the U.S.
  • John Adams - An excellent three part series on the life of America's second president.
  • The Hurt Locker - Perhaps the best movie with a contemporary war theme yet made.
  • Journey from the Fall - A tale of a South Vietnamese family's struggle to escape from South Vietnam after its fall to the North Vietnamese in the mid-seventies, and the difficulties they face once they arrive in the U.S.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Year's Reading

The end of the December is often a time to take a look back at the year just ending. In my case, I like to look back at the books I've read and the films I've watched. Below is a list of the books. Perhaps you've read some of these also. If so, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on them.

My reading this year was heavily invested in C.S. Lewis and Friedrich Nietzsche, an odd juxtaposition, perhaps. I also reread a number of books with which I wanted to renew my acquaintance. Some of this year's books are truly great and some are quite forgettable, but in any case here they are with a word or two of description of each:
  • Perelandra: C.S. Lewis (2nd reading) - Lewis imagines how things might have turned out in Eden. The book is an allegory of the Fall but with a much happier outcome.
  • Going Rogue: Sarah Palin - Palin's account of her selection as McCain's running mate and the subsequent campaign. She's far from the demoniac the left has made her out to be.
  • The Lost Symbol: Dan Brown - A typical Brown page-turner until he gets to the last chapter where he feels obliged to give his own thoughts on institutional religion. He was badly served by his editor here.
  • The Screwtape Letters: C.S. Lewis (2nd reading) - A classic tale of human foibles, weakness, and strength told from the standpoint of the demons who seek to subvert those who have committed their lives to God.
  • The Chosen: Chaim Potok - A wonderful story about friendship and growing up in America as an orthodox Jew.
  • The Promise: Chaim Potok - Ditto
  • The Four Loves: C.S. Lewis - Lewis has some very helpful things to say in this book about friendship and eros.
  • A New Kind of Christianity: Brian McLaren - McLaren is one of the leading contemporary advocates for a more post-modern Christianity, one that's heavy on human caring and light on doctrinal distinctions.
  • Son of Hamas: Mosab Yousef - A fascinating story written by the son of one of the founders of Hamas. Yousef early on became disenchanted with both Hamas and Islam and wound up rejecting both. He lives today in the U.S.
  • Till We Have Faces: C.S. Lewis - Another of Lewis' wonderful allegories.
  • Quantum Enigma: Rosenblum and Kuttner (2nd reading) - A great book for the reader who wants to at least understand why quantum mechanics is not understandable. The authors do a good job of illustrating the bizarre world of the quantum.
  • Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide: Edw. Feeser - An excellent introductory guide to Aquinas' philosophy.
  • Tea With Hezbollah: Ted Dekker - Dekker went around the Middle East interviewing people on both sides of the Arab/Israeli conflict to try to get a feel for the prospects of peace in the region. The book seems very superficial in some ways, especially compared to the somewhat similar Terror in the Name of God (below).
  • To Change the World: James D. Hunter - An excellent analysis of the idea and nature of worldview thinking. Will probably become a classic on the topic.
  • No Laughing in the Kremlin: Valery Kostyleff - Kostyleff is a Russian immigrant who formerly worked for the Soviet news agency TASS. He's written a satire on the fall of the Soviet Union and its transition to capitalism.
  • The Gay Science: Friedrich Nietzsche - Nietszche calls his readers to, among other things, exult in the death of God and all that that entails.
  • Nickel and Dimed: Barbara Ehrenreich - Ehrenreich set out to see how hard it is to live on minimum wage jobs for a year and writes about her experiences. It's easy to become engrossed in her story.
  • Good News About Injustice: Gary Haughens - A call for people, especially Christians, to work for justice on behalf of the world's oppressed.
  • The Copper Scroll: Joel Rosenberg - A Middle East thriller, but not, in my opinion, one of Rosenberg's best.
  • A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Alberto Angela - Angela takes the reader on an imaginary tour of ancient Rome c. 115 A.D. An excellent glimpse of what daily life was like for the average Roman of the time.
  • At the Origin of Modern Atheism: Michael Buckley - A very scholarly, and in some ways pedantic, excursis through the history of the development of materialism among the French philosophes and British Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th and 18th century. Those who might want a more readable treatment of the same themes should try The Roads to Modernity (see below).
  • Genealogy of Morals: Friedrich Nietzsche - See Gay Science above
  • Ecce Homo: Friedrich Nietzsche - See Gay Science above
  • Flight of the Intellectuals: Paul Berman - Berman is a liberal who is very critical of his fellow liberals for their moral blind spot regarding Islamic extremism. In this book the specific blind spot has to do with the left's misplaced fondness for Tariq Ramadan, grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Not God's Type: Holly Ordway - A journal of one college professor's journey from secularism to faith.
  • Liberty and Tyranny: Mark Levin - A conservative manifesto in which Levin contrasts the philosophy of conservatism with the philosophy of progressive statism. Very helpful for those who want to learn why labels matter.
  • The Roads to Modernity: Gertrude Himmelfarb - Historian Himmelfarb compares and contrasts what she sees as three different enlightenments - British, American, and French - and compares the fruits of each.
  • Where Men Win Glory: Jon Krakauer - The story of the death of former pro football player turned army ranger Pat Tillman. Tillman was a victim of friendly fire in Afghanistan.
  • The Brothers Karamazov: Fyodor Dostoyevsky (2nd reading) - One of the greatest novels in all of literature and one of my personal top three favorites. The chapters titled The Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor are stand alone classics.
  • Terror in the Name of God: Jessica Stern - Stern interviews a number of Jewish, Christian and Muslim terrorists and focuses on their motives and other psychological aspects of their worldviews.
  • The Faithful: Jonathan Weyer - A novel about the paranormal and the supernatural.
  • Beyond Good and Evil: Friedrich Nietzsche (2nd reading) - See Gay Science above.
My New Year's resolution for 2011 is to finally get through three books that I've started on several occasions, including last summer, and never finished. The three are, Augustine's City of God, Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Montaigne's Apology for Raymond Sebond. I'm sure I'm not the only person who has found these works tough going, but I'm determined to see them through. I'll report back next December to let you know how it went.


Smarter Than They Think

On Fox News Sunday the other day Juan Williams, a liberal contributor to Fox News, was assessing the possible GOP presidential candidates, and made the rather dubious claim that, “There’s nobody out there, except for Sarah Palin, who can absolutely dominate the stage, and she can’t stand on the intellectual stage with Obama."

Now I'm not one of those who's convinced that Mr. Obama is the intellectual colossus his supporters assure us he is. I don't think that an extraordinary intellect is immediately apparent when the President speaks, nor do I know what evidence there is upon which such an encomium is based. On the other hand, neither am I convinced that Ms Palin is the intellectual lightweight she's often portrayed to be and, admittedly, has sometimes come across as being. Nevertheless, two or three unfortunate locutions notwithstanding, she at least appears to understand that there are 50 states in the union, suggesting a knowledge of certain basic facts which surpasses that of candidate Obama.

At any rate, an editorial in the New York Sun should give pause to fair-minded observers who might be inclined to scoff at Ms Palin's political perspicacity. Consider this passage from the column:
One of the questions raised by the news that the Obama administration is going to use regulation rather than legislation to bring in the so-called “death panels” as part of Obamacare is how it happened that this was first foreseen not by the newspapers or the members of Congress but by Governor Palin. Confirmation of Mrs. Palin’s scoop was brought in by the New York Times in a dispatch issued Christmas day, more than a year after Mrs. Palin issued her warning about Obamacare leading to government involvement in end-of-life issues.

At the time, Mrs. Palin’s prophecy touched off an enormous hue and a cry among the liberal intelligentsia, so much so that the scheme was dropped in Congress. Yet even though it was dropped by Congress the New York Times is reporting that “the Obama administration will achieve the same goal by regulation” and will start doing so January 1. The Times says that the government “will now pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.”

It seems to be the administration's conception of democracy that after the Congress so pointedly left this out of the Obamacare legislation the scheme can be advanced by regulation. The point is underscored in Robert Pear’s dispatch in the Times, which quotes one of the congressmen originally advocating for the so-called death panels, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, as saying of the regulatory approach, “we won’t be shouting it from the rooftops because we aren’t out of the woods yet” and warning that the regulation could yet be “modified or reversed.”

The question that we find ourselves thinking about is how was Mrs. Palin able to see this issue when others weren’t. Is she just smarter than the editors and the Congress? Or does she just have more life experience? Is it that her religion gives her a framework for learning all this stuff? Or is it that her sensitivity was heightened by making of her own decision to bring Trig into the world? Or is it something about the Alaskan spirit?
The editors go on to enumerate other examples of how Palin has been out in front of the media on a number of different issues. It's interesting.

A friend asked me recently if I supported Palin for the GOP nomination for president. My answer was that just because someone is an outstanding linebacker doesn't mean he'd be a good quarterback. I think Palin's a great linebacker, but I don't know if she'd be a good quarterback. We'll have to see how the primary campaign unfolds. I reject, though, the assertion that she lacks the qualifications to be president, or, I should say that I reject it when it comes from the lips of anyone who thought that Mr. Obama did possess those qualifications. It's hard to see what preparation he had that she doesn't.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Private and Public Generosity

This theme has been touched upon before but it's good to remind ourselves from time to time just how mistaken are those who seek to portray conservatives as grinches who hate the poor. Arthur Brooks has done a number of pieces in which he disabuses his readers of this misconception, and he has another one out now in the Wall Street Journal. Here's a part of his column:
It is common to hear that the popular uprising against the growth of the welfare state, with rising taxes and deficits, is based on a lack of caring toward those who are suffering the most in the current crisis. As soon-to-be ex-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi puts it, the tea party is working "for the rich instead of for the great middle class." Others have asserted that the backlash against the growth of government is nothing more than an attack on the poor.

Americans in general are very charitable, by international standards. Study after study shows that we privately give multiples of what our Social Democratic friends in Europe donate, per capita. But not all Americans are equally generous. One characteristic of givers is especially important in the current debate: the opinion that the government should not redistribute income to achieve greater economic equality.

Consider the answer to the question, "Do you believe the government has a responsibility to reduce income differences between rich and poor?" Many surveys have asked this over the years. In 2006, the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) found that Americans were almost equally divided on this question (52% in favor, 48% against). This is in stark contrast to the Europeans. For example, 94% of the Portuguese in the 2006 ISSP survey were in favor of redistribution; only 6% were against.

When it comes to voluntarily spreading their own wealth around, a distinct "charity gap" opens up between Americans who are for and against government income leveling. Your intuition might tell you that people who favor government redistribution care most about the less fortunate and would give more to charity. Initially, this was my own assumption. But the data tell a different story.

The most recent year that a large, nonpartisan survey asked people about both redistributive beliefs and charitable giving was 1996. That year, the General Social Survey (GSS) found that those who were against higher levels of government redistribution privately gave four times as much money, on average, as people who were in favor of redistribution. This is not all church-related giving; they also gave about 3.5 times as much to nonreligious causes. Anti-redistributionists gave more even after correcting for differences in income, age, religion and education.
No doubt there are a number of reasons for this disparity between conservatives and liberals. Perhaps one of them is that conservatives are often motivated by religious beliefs which enjoin them to help the poor whereas liberals are more likely to be secularists who feel themselves under no such obligation.

Whatever the reason there appears to be little connection between opposition to the welfare state and personal generosity. If that's so, then the question arises as to why people who are personally charitable are so opposed to helping others through government largesse. I think the obvious answer is because, except in extreme cases of last resort, they perceive government aid as a band-aid that simply subsidizes poverty and provides a disincentive for getting out of it. It doesn't work and is often, even usually, a waste of money. People would much rather help through agencies they know are punctilious about how their money is used and which make every effort to apply every dollar as efficiently and effectively as possible. In other words, they prefer the government not handle their charity.

The More Things Change

Richard Fernandez at The Belmont Club makes the interesting point that there's every bit as much moral judgmentalism infusing the public square as ever there was, but that what is considered moral and immoral is very much different today than, say, forty years ago. He writes:
Morals legislation appears to be as pervasive as ever. Nothing in the current environment suggests there exist opinions on which you may not be lectured. The extent of what is out of bounds is growing all the time. What has changed is the contents of that proscribed area. It may now be a crime to quote the Bible.

For example, in May of 2010 a British preacher [a Mr. McAlpine]was arrested for handing out leaflets saying that homosexuality was a sin. A policeman approached “to warn him they had received complaints and that if he made any racist or homophobic comments he would be arrested.”

I told him homosexuality is a sin, and he told me “I am a homosexual, I find that offensive, and I’m also the liaison officer for the bisexual-lesbian-gay-transsexual community”,’ he said yesterday. ‘I told him it was still a sin.’

Mr Adams last year represented Cumbria Police at the Gay Pride march in Manchester. On the social networking site MySpace, he describes his orientation as gay and his religion as atheist.

After the warning, Mr McAlpine took over preaching for 20 minutes, although he claims he did not cover homosexuality. But while he talked to a passer-by the PCSO radioed for assistance and he was arrested by uniformed officers.

He was taken to a police station, had his pockets emptied and his mobile phone taken along with his belt and shoes, and was kept in the cells for seven hours where he sang hymns to keep his spirits up.

It is exactly the same process that might have occurred fifty years ago but with a policeman warning a homosexual he could not distribute leaflets advocating sodomy. What has changed isn’t that people are being warned off for their beliefs. What is different is which beliefs they are being warned against. The Ins and the Outs have changed places, but he door remains the same. Wikipedia writes that “views on public morality do change over time,” but whether public morality itself can ever be abolished is an open question.

One of the drivers of the new public morality is who can fight back. British policemen do not go around telling Muslim imams not to preach against homosexuality because such preachers may take strenuous exception to their warnings. But the rules of the new morality are often capricious, unstated or simply arcane.
Fernandez has a point. You'd risk being shouted down were you to suggest publicly that almost any form of sexual expression is wrong. You'd be called a prude, a bigot, and intolerant. On the other hand, progressive society is very intolerant of people who don't belong to any of the groups approved or favored by the contemporary standard-setters. If one is a smoker, a meat-eater, or wears furs, one can expect to meet with a certain measure of social opprobrium in our more liberal precincts. Likewise if one is a Catholic or fundamentalist or a pro-lifer.

Tolerance of other peoples' preferences and beliefs often extends only to those who think the way our left-leaning elites think. All others merit society's anathema and execration.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Remember These During the Christmas Season

Paul Marshall is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom. He studies the persecution of Christians and has a very sobering piece at National Review Online on the atrocities many believers are forced to suffer around the globe. One wonders why there's not an international outcry against the sort of brutal oppression he recounts. It certainly doesn't seem to have triggered the same sort of response that, say, the deaths of a half dozen terrorists at the hands of Israelis attempting to enforce an embargo would trigger.

I copy Marshall's full essay here because it just seems too important to interrupt by having the reader go to the link. I hope he and NRO don't mind. Please read it all:
Herod has his current imitators. In 1991, China’s state-run press noted the role of the churches in undercutting Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, adding that if China did “not want such a scene to be repeated in its land, it must strangle the baby while it is still in the manger.” Al-Qaeda has declared that all Middle Eastern Christians should be killed, and many Christians in Iraq have canceled their Christmas celebrations lest they be targeted.

Others, while less explicit, have similar ends. Iran has passed a death sentence on Yousef Nadarkhani, pastor of the Full Gospel Church of Iran congregation in the northern city of Rasht. Nadarkhani became a Christian 16 years ago and was arrested on October 12, 2009, after protesting a government decision that his son must study the Koran. On Sept. 21 and 22, 2010, the Eleventh Chamber of the Assizes Court of Gilan Province said that he was guilty of apostasy and sentenced him to death for leaving Islam. (Apostasy is not a crime under any Iranian statute — the judges simply referred to the opinions of Iranian legal scholars).

Another Iranian Christian pastor, Behrouz Sadegh-Khanjani, may face a similar fate. He was arrested on June 6, 2010, and is still being held even though his detention order expired in October.

In Afghanistan, after a TV program showed video of indigenous Christians worshipping last May, many Christians were forced to flee, and as many as 25 were arrested. One of those arrested was Said Musa, a father of six young children, who had converted to Christianity eight years previous. He had stepped on a landmine while serving in the Afghan Army and now has a prosthetic leg. Musa had worked for the Red Cross/Red Crescent for 15 years, fitting patients for prosthetic limbs — it was after going to their office in Kabul on May 31 to request leave that he was arrested.

The prosecutor, Din Mohammad Quraishi, said Musa was accused of conversion to another religion. In early June, the deputy secretary of the Afghan parliament, Abdul Sattar Khawasi, said that “those Afghans that appeared on this video film should be executed in public.” The authorities forced Musa to renounce Christianity on television, but he has continued to say he is a Christian. In the first months of his detention, he suffered sexual abuse, beatings, mockery, and sleep deprivation because of his faith. He appeared, shackled, before a judge on November 27. No Afghan lawyer will defend him and, in early December, authorities denied him access to a foreign lawyer.

Another Afghan Christian, Shoib Assadullah, was arrested on October 21, 2010, for giving a copy of the New Testament to a man, and is being held in Mazar-e-Sharif. As with Musa, no Afghan lawyer has agreed to defend him, and both will probably face charges of apostasy, a crime that is punishable by death under the government’s version of sharia. As the State Department’s 2010 International Religious Freedom Report notes, religious freedom in Afghanistan has diminished “particularly for Christian groups and individuals.”

One of the most ignored stories of 2010 has been the campaign by the al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab militia in Somalia to kill all Somali Christians on the grounds that they are apostates. They have even beheaded Christians’ children. In one of the latest incidents, 17-year-old girl Nurta Mohamed Farah fled her village of Bardher in the Gedo Region after her parents shackled her to a tree and tortured her for leaving Islam. She went to the Galgadud Region to live with relatives, but shortly after, she was shot in the head and the chest and died.

Not content with killing people, on December 16, al-Shabab destroyed a Christian library they found in a derelict farm in the Luuq district — Christians often bury their Bibles and other books to escape detection. International Christian Concern reports that al-Shabab brought Bibles, Christian books, and audio/video materials to the city center and burned them after noon prayers.

At Christmas, we should remember these churches, each of which continues to grow, and remember these prisoners and others like them. Assadullah emphasizes that he “wants others to know that he is not frightened, and that his faith is strong.” Musa writes that “because the Holy Spirit always with me my situation is not bad until now. I see after what the plan of God is with me.”
It's a symptom of intellectual insecurity, I suppose, that people are so threatened by another belief system, one that does them no harm and has certainly done them much good, that they'll seek to kill those who adhere to it. It's a symptom not only of stupidity but also of savagery and barbarism.

Perhaps the best reason for pulling our troops and aid out of Afghanistan, indeed the toughest question that I've seen posed by advocates of getting out now, is Why should American soldiers be fighting and dying for people like these? That's a hard one to answer.

The Cost of Premarital Sex

The Mail Online has an article which discusses the correlation between premarital sex and the quality of a marriage. The results of the research evidently fly full in the face of the contemporary Zeitgeist. Here's the heart of it:
Scientists at the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University in Utah interviewed 2,035 married people about when they first had sex with their partner.

Analysis of the results showed that couples who waited until marriage before having sex enjoyed a much healthier relationship with their partner than those who started having sex in the early part of their relationship.

In particular, relationship stability was rated 22 per cent higher, relationship satisfaction was 20 per cent higher, quality of sex was 15 per cent better and even communication between partners was 12 per cent better.
There's more on this at the link.

The results don't surprise, or at least shouldn't surprise. When a couple is not committed to waiting, sex tends to crowd out everything else that should be going on in the time they are together before their marriage. The relationship isn't nourished or explored. Compatibility problems in areas other than the physical, areas which will become critical when the couple has to make a life together, tend to become suppressed and glossed over. It doesn't seem important that the two people may have little in common or are unable to communicate on the same wavelength. Good sex makes it all well.

Unfortunately, those who have been saying since the sexual revolution of the 60s that sexual attraction will not sustain a relationship, much less a marriage, have been shunted aside and scoffed at for being "old-fashioned" and irrelevant. Turns out, though, that studies like this one, plus the statistics on divorce and family cohesion, show them to have been right.

We always have to learn the hard way, it seems.

Thanks to Hot Air for the tip.

A Comeback?

Jennifer Rubin is a conservative blogger at the liberal Washington Post which is to be commended for giving her a perch there. Her most recent post assesses the flurry of enthusiasm among the liberal media for Obama's finish during the lame duck session. Just when everyone seemed to be pronouncing the President's political life all but over, he got a couple of things he wanted, things to which no one seemed to be too strongly opposed in any event, and much of the media has reacted as if they'd just witnessed Lazarus emerge from the tomb.

Rubin demurs and suggests instead that the excitement over the revivification of Mr. Obama's political career is either phony, misplaced, or premature. She maintains that there is no "comeback":
[I]f the highlight of Obama's term, according to outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, was the "historic" ObamaCare legislation, then the highlight could soon be extinguished. Obama's central domestic achievement is facing judicial scrutiny, a Republican onslaught to repeal, or at least defund, it, and a public that has never "learned" to love the bill.

Only inside the Beltway could the passage of an arms control treaty and repeal of DADT consume so many for so long and result in such exaggerated punditry. Would Republicans have traded wins on DADT and START for their wins on the DREAM act, the tax deal and the omnibus spending bill? Not in a million years.

But liberal media mavens have a narrative that resists "bad news" (i.e. scandals, polling, the Tea Party movement) which suggests trouble for the Obama administration. They also confuse legislative achievement with political success. If passing stuff was the secret to a political comeback, then the Democrats after ObamaCare and the stimulus plan would have had the greatest year ever [at the polls].

Obama may yet stage a comeback. But to do that, he'll have to do what the left loathes -- cut domestic programs, rework entitlement programs, stand up to foreign adversaries (Obama's legacy is irretrievably ruined if Iran gets the bomb on his watch), cut back on growth-restricting regulations and keep tax rates low. And so long as unemployment remains at historic highs, Obama's chances of re-election remain poor.
I particularly like the sentence that says that the left-leaning media confuse legislative achievement with political success. They also confuse legislative action with national progress. Turn on almost any program at MSNBC and the talk is all about how great it is that the Democrats won on DADT and START. It's like watching a sports talk show. It's all about whether one's own side wins. There's rarely any discussion of what these things will actually mean for the country and whether we'll be better off once they're passed.

You'd think, watching the commentary on MSNBC, that what's actually in these measures and what their consequences will be is totally irrelevant. How many newspapers have actually walked their readers through the provisions of the START treaty and pointed out what the proponents like and the opponents don't, and why? I suppose some have, but most news outlets spent their time during the lame-duck session chattering about the political alignments and who among the Republicans Mr. Obama might win over to his side to get the treaty passed. Then, once it passed, they reported on this as a great victory for the President with little or no explanation why we should think that it was a great victory for the country.

The television talking heads also prattle a lot about Obama's "move to the center", as if this were a brilliant stratagem. I've heard almost no one talk about what it says for a man's principles if he campaigns on the left (or right), but then moves to the middle once elected in order to improve his chances of reelection. If Mr. Obama abandons his core convictions to compromise with the Republicans the country will be better off than had he not, but Mr. Obama will be shown to have been nothing more, politically speaking, than John McCain without McCain's experience. So what was the point of all the sturm und drang in 2008? What did all the rhetoric about a coming transformational presidency actually mean?

It would seem that it meant that the electorate had been snookered into believing that they were getting something novel in our politics when, in fact, they were getting the same old thing.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Wish for You

I want to take a moment on this Christmas eve to wish all of our readers, including those in Russia, Thailand, India, Africa, Israel, Canada, and all across Europe, whether you are Christian or not, a wonderful and meaningful Christmas.

I hope each of you is warmed this night by the love of God and that you each have opportunity to direct that love to all those around you in ways great and small.

Gloria in excelsis Deo

He's Kidding, Right?

Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast has a piece on teen pregnancy that contains some good news. Apparently teens are continuing a trend that started back in the 90's of getting pregnant less and less frequently. There's lots of information in the article, but one thing that struck me was the speculation about the cause of the downward trend. Read this excerpt and see what you think:
On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its preliminary findings of all things birth rate for America in 2009. The report showed that the birth rate among American teenagers is now the lowest it has been in the 70 years since such records were kept. In 2009, 39.1 in 1,000 teenagers had a baby, down from 41.5 in 2008, a 6 percent decrease.

“Six percent is a huge drop,” said Bill Albert, chief program officer for the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy. “To get a birth rate dropping 6 percent in one year is really quite remarkable.”

The heft of the decline seemed to catch experts and advocacy groups off guard, and no clear explanation for the change was forthcoming.

Some experts are pointing to the economic recession as an operating factor....Albert was initially skeptical that the economy could be responsible for the downturn, but has become a “recent convert” to the possibility.

“It may be that the recession has had a bit of a sobering effect on teenagers in the following respect: Maybe their parents are having a tough time. Maybe they have neighbors who have been unable to find a job. Maybe they have neighbors who have lost their home,” he said. Survey data on teens show “they are very, very pessimistic about their economic future. Maybe that has placed a governor of sorts on their sexual appetite.”
It was hard not to laugh when I read this. It's difficult to believe that teenagers with hormones at full throttle and their passion all but incandescent, are pausing to think about the recession, of all things. If they're not inhibited by all the other hazards that often accompany teenage sex, they're hardly likely to be dissuaded by sudden concerns over the jobless rate.

I'd like to think that maybe the reason that there are fewer teen pregnancies now is that teenagers are simply having less sex today than they were a decade ago, but that might sound to some ears almost as silly as claiming that the reason they're not getting pregnant is their profound alarm over the national debt.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

More on the Man Who Is "Potentially Evangelical"

Denise O'Leary has a post worth reading over at Uncommon Descent on the case of Dr. C. Martin Gaskell, the astronomer who was denied the directorship at the University of Kentucky's observatory because he was "potentially evangelical" (See here for details of Gaskell's case.).

Can you imagine, Gaskell's lawyer asks, the U of K poobahs declining someone the position because he was "potentially" Jewish or "potentially" Muslim? Say I, suppose the man were "potentially" atheist. Would that be a disqualifier for the directorship? If not, why not? Please don't make the mistake of replying that naturalism is not a religion. All such responses will be immediately sent to the trash heap of metaphysically misinformed ideas.

Anyway, O'Leary's is an informative piece if you're interested in how Christians who take their faith seriously fare at the hands of the secular bigots in the modern university. Check it out.

Distinguishing Tumors from Unborn Children

The gossamer thinness of arguments advanced by the pro-abortion folks in defense of a woman's right to kill her unborn child is nowhere more apparent than in the case made by Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education. Rosenau makes the incredible claim that it's hard to come up with a "clean, uncomplicated distinction" between a baby in the womb and a cancerous tumor.

Michael Egnor pretty much demolishes this claim and a couple of others in a piece at Evolution News and Views. Here's part of Egnor's essay:
Contra Rosenau, there is a sharp biological distinction between a baby in the womb and a cancer. That sharp distinction holds at every stage of human development. A zygote/embryo/fetus is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens. A cancer cell/tumor is not an individual member of the species Homo sapiens. A cancerous tumor is a part of a human being that has lost growth regulation and replicates without normal inhibition. Dermoids (benign tumors) and HeLa cells (immortal cervical cancer cells grown in culture and widely used for experiments) are not human beings.

A cancer cell if unchecked will grow into a tumor which will kill the human being of which it is but a part. A human being at conception will mature to a newborn baby and to an adult. A cancer is biologically, physiologically, biochemically, morphologically, histologically, phylogenetically, teleologically, therapeutically, and morally different from an unborn child. Cancers should be excised, radiated, and eliminated with chemotherapy. Children in the womb should be nourished, loved, and delivered alive and healthy.

The question is not whether a zygote (or embryo or fetus) is a human being. He or she is. And the question is not whether a cancer is a human being. It is not. Both are uncontested rudimentary facts of biology. Any competent biologist can distinguish an unborn child from cancer. Any competent pathologist can distinguish an unborn child from cancer. Any competent obstetrician can distinguish an unborn child from cancer.

Yet Rosenau, Programs and Policy Director for the National Center for Science Education, finds that "that line is hard to draw."
It is surprising to me that anyone who holds such a lofty position in an organization given to the promotion of science, as Rosenau does, would affix his name to such an absurd assertion. Anyway, anyone who's interested in the abortion issue should read Egnor's entire essay. It's what the kids, I'm told, call a smackdown.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

How Bad Is It?

How dire is the economic situation in states and municipalities right now? Imagine Damocles' sword sweeping back and forth an eighth of an inch above our throats. But don't take my word for it, instead watch this 60 Minutes segment:
I hope this didn't ruin your Christmas holiday, but really, the next time you hear conservatives called hard-hearted for wanting to restrain spending and cut budgets, ask yourself whether it was restrained spending that brought us to this point or whether it was governmental profligacy. What good does it do to give huge entitlements to the poor and elderly and staggering pensions to public employees if all it does is bankrupt the state? And which states are in the worst shape? Is it just a coincidence that it's states like New York, California, Illinois, and New Jersey which until recently, or even still, are controlled by Democrats?

On the national level the Democrats' appetite for spending is nowhere close to being satisfied. Had the Republicans not been able to stop the bloated Omnibus spending bill that Harry Reid tried to ram through the Senate last week our national debt would be even more crushing than it already is. They're looting our children's patrimony, and, like Governor Christie suggests in the video, the bills are soon going to come crashing down upon all of us.

To quote the good Reverend Wright, the chickens are coming home to roost.

Thanks to Hot Air for the video.

Low Level Genocide

The LA Times' Timothy Rutten describes the ongoing extirpation of Christians in the Muslim Middle East and laments that the U.S. seems loath to do anything about it. Here are some excerpts from Rutten's piece:
When America intervened to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Iraq's Christians — mostly Chaldeans and Assyrians — numbered about 1.4 million, or about 3% of the population. Over the last seven years, more than half have fled the country and, as the New York Times reported this week, a wave of targeted killings — including the Oct. 31 slaying of 51 worshipers and two priests during Mass at one of Baghdad's largest churches — has sent many more Christians fleeing.

Despite Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's promises to increase security, many believe the Christians are being targeted not only by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which has instructed its fighters "to kill Christians wherever they can reach them," but also by complicit elements within the government's security services.

The United States, meanwhile, does nothing — as it did nothing four years ago, when Father Boulos Iskander was kidnapped, beheaded and dismembered; or three years ago, when Father Ragheed Ganni was shot dead at the altar of this church; or two years ago, when Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho was kidnapped and murdered; as it has done nothing about all the church bombings and assassinations of lay Christians that have become commonplace over the last seven years.

The human tragedy of all this is compounded by the historic one. The churches of the Middle East preserve the traditions of the Apostolic era in ways no other Christian rites or denominations do. The followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch Syria, and it was there that the Gospels first were written down in Koine Greek.

For 1,000 years, the churches of Iraq and Syria were great centers of Christian thought and art. Today, the Christian population is declining in every majority Muslim country in the region and is under increasingly severe pressure even in Lebanon, where it still constitutes 35% of the population.

Putting aside America's particular culpability in Iraq, the West as a community of nations has long turned a blind eye to the intolerance of the Middle East's Muslim states — an intolerance that has intensified with the spread of Salafism, Islam's brand of militant fundamentalism. Our ally Saudi Arabia is the great financial and ideological backer of this hatred. In fact, when it comes to religion, the kingdom and North Korea are the most criminally intolerant countries in the world.

Oil and geopolitics prevent the United States and Western European countries from speaking out against what amounts to genocide, though something more sinister than self-interest also is at work. The soft bigotry of minimal expectation is in play, an unspoken presumption that Muslim societies simply can't be held to the same standards of humane, rational and decent conduct that govern the affairs of other nations.
He has more at the link. It's ironic that whereas Christianity and Judaism are growing more tolerant of other faiths in the modern world, Islam, at least as it's practiced in much of the Middle East, is becoming less so. Throughout much of the twentieth century most Christian martyrs were victims of atheistic communism. It's sad that today Christians are being murdered by fellow monotheists. What is it about Christianity that both communists and Muslim extremists fear?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why So Few Republican Scientists?

Slate has a good piece by Daniel Sarewitz lamenting the fact that science in America is dominated by members of a single political party. Sarewitz argues that this state of affairs is good neither for science nor for the future of our democracy. Here are a few excerpts:
It is no secret that the ranks of scientists and engineers in the United States include dismal numbers of Hispanics and African-Americans, but few have remarked about another significantly underrepresented group: Republicans.

No, this is not the punch line of a joke. A Pew Research Center Poll from July 2009 showed that only around 6 percent of U.S. scientists are Republicans; 55 percent are Democrats, 32 percent are independent, and the rest "don't know" their affiliation.

Yet, partisan politics aside, why should it matter that there are so few Republican scientists? After all, it's the scientific facts that matter, and facts aren't blue or red.

Well, that's not quite right. Consider the case of climate change, of which beliefs are astonishingly polarized according to party affiliation and ideology. A March 2010 Gallup poll showed that 66 percent of Democrats (and 74 percent of liberals) say the effects of global warming are already occurring, as opposed to 31 percent of Republicans. Does that mean that Democrats are more than twice as likely to accept and understand the scientific truth of the matter? And that Republicans are dominated by scientifically illiterate yahoos and corporate shills willing to sacrifice the planet for short-term economic and political gain?

Or could it be that disagreements over climate change are essentially political—and that science is just carried along for the ride? For 20 years, evidence about global warming has been directly and explicitly linked to a set of policy responses demanding international governance regimes, large-scale social engineering, and the redistribution of These are the sort of things that most Democrats welcome, and most Republicans hate. No wonder the Republicans are suspicious of the science.

Think about it: The results of climate science, delivered by scientists who are overwhelmingly Democratic, are used over a period of decades to advance a political agenda that happens to align precisely with the ideological preferences of Democrats. Coincidence—or causation?
I wonder if one reason that most scientists are Democrats isn't the same as the reason that most academics in general are Democrats. Scientists are often dependent upon government largesse for grants and employment. Thus scientists are going to favor a government that's generous with grant money, i.e. the sort of government promoted by the Democrat party.

Perhaps another reason is that science serves as a kind of substitute religion for at least some of its practitioners. Most Republicans already have a religion and don't feel drawn to the sciences to find one. Those who don't have a religion, however, which is the condition of many on the political left, often seek to find meaning and purpose in their life by making discoveries that will advance our knowledge and understanding of the world and ourselves. Thus they are drawn to the practice of science.

Or it may be that scientists gravitate toward the Democrat party because for three generations now, the media has portrayed Republicans as oafish, benighted and greedy. People who are intelligent and caring don't wish to be associated with a party in which, to their way of thinking, so many ignorant souls find refuge.

Or it may be that liberals simply tend to value scientific and other intellectual pursuits more than conservatives do.

Or it may be that the reason is either none of the above or a combination of all of the above. Whatever it is I think we can agree with Sarewitz that it's not healthy for either science or the country to have such a lop-sided distribution of ideological perspectives among those to whom we often turn for expert opinions on important matters of public policy.

Cultural Shift

Andrew Klavan at NRO makes the case that there is a fresh conservative breeze blowing through the leftist stronghold that is American culture. He stresses in his concluding paragraph why culture matters:
The fight for the culture may not always seem urgent, but it truly is. Arguments are won and lost in hearts and minds long before they’re ever decided at the polls. The arts not only reflect the conscience of the hour, they also shape the conscience of the age.
An earlier paragraph elaborates:
We fret because we fear that ignorant people — especially the young — will take leftist art as truth, essentially giving the Left the power to rewrite history and reality in the American mind. Perhaps the next generation will come to believe that Oliver Stone’s absurd but well-made JFK tells the true story of the president’s assassination or that American operatives and soldiers routinely committed the sorts of atrocities depicted in Rendition or Redacted. As former ambassador Joseph Wilson boasted about the contrafactual heroic impression given of him and his wife, Valerie Plame, in the new film Fair Game: “For people who have short memories or don’t read, this is the only way they will remember the period.”
He goes on to cite examples of how the fare to which Americans are exposed on the screens of their theaters and televisions is shifting rightward along with the mood of the country. Here's part of his brief:
For the last few years, movies promoting the Western ideals of self-reliance, morality, and faith have scored at the box office — see The Incredibles (“If everyone is special, that means no one is”), The Blind Side (“Who would have thought we’d have a black son before we knew a Democrat?”), and Toy Story 3 (a takedown of the nanny state). They have also been more innovative and creative — 300, Gran Torino, No Country for Old Men — than the products of the desiccated and outmoded Left.

Our best novelist (Tom Wolfe) and two greatest English-speaking playwrights (Tom Stoppard and David Mamet) are now all open about their political conservatism. And new top-notch mainstream TV shows (Justified, Blue Bloods) have arrived to offset the lefty Law and Order and Jon Stewart.
I don't know if Klavan is just indulging in wishful thinking or has spotted a genuine trend, but his article may interest those who need a reason to hope that maybe things are indeed getting better.

Our culture reflects our view of both God and man, and the view that is too often promoted in much of our music and films is that there is no God, and man is just an animal with brutish appetites whose satisfaction is the path to happiness and fulfullment.

It's a view of man that glorifies the base, the crude and the vulgar while denying that there's anything particularly noble or sublime about being human. This, of course, is precisely what one would expect from a culture that no longer believes that man is created in the image of God and made a little lower than the angels.

I hope Klavan is right about the wind shift, but I need to see a more consistent turn of the weathervane before I begin to celebrate.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Protein Folding

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of metabolic processes occurring in each of the trillions of cells in your body at this very moment. Each of those processes requires the work of a team of specialized proteins, and each of those proteins must have a particular shape in order to perform its assigned task.

Examples of Protein Shapes
 If a particular protein fails to achieve the proper shape when it is formed the fitness of the cell will suffer and thereby hangs an interesting problem. Given that the universe of possible configurations that a protein could adopt is vastly greater than the number of seconds since the earth formed, how is it that just these highly specific shapes have been discovered for each of the myriad proteins in the cell by natural selection? Biologists tell us that the shape of a protein is a function of the sequence of amino acids that make the protein up, much like beads make up a necklace, but how, out of all the possible sequences that there are, did just the right sequence arise?

Cornelius Hunter offers an interesting discussion on the problem at Darwin's God. He writes:
But [the protein] works just fine only because a very special amino acid sequence was specified. That amino acid sequence is just as astronomically rare as the three dimensional structure that the unfolded protein was able to find. So from where did this amino acid sequence come?

The string of amino acids that make up a protein comes from the cell’s translating machine called the ribosome. The ribosome takes as input a string of nucleotides and produces as output a string of amino acids. The translation is done according to the genetic code.

And from where did the string of nucleotides come? It came from the DNA. A massive protein copying machine slides along an opened section of DNA and copies a gene.

And from where did the DNA gene come? According to evolution it evolved, but it is here that we find another entropy barrier. Just as the folding protein is confronted with an astronomical number of structures, so too the DNA gene is confronted with its own nightmare of choices. But that is where the similarities end.
DNA is a code. It's information. At bottom is the question of where information comes from. Can it be produced by chance and blind forces, or does it require intention and intelligence? We have never experienced information such as a code being produced apart from a mind, and yet despite the complete lack of empirical warrant the naturalist takes an enormous leap of faith and chooses to believe, without any evidence, that not only are such wonders possible but that they actually happened in the origin of living things.

Then the naturalist, having committed himself to the belief that unthinking nature is capable of such miracles, the equivalent of believing that a computer program could be produced by a random symbol generator, criticizes those who are skeptical as being superstitious and unscientific for thinking that the existence of information is evidence of the existence of an intelligent mind. Pretty funny, I think.

Mixed Feelings on the DREAM Act

The DREAM act failed to achieve cloture in a bipartisan vote (55-41) in Congress over the weekend, which means it's dead for this session and probably for the foreseeable future. It would have granted citizenship to children who were brought to this country by their parents who were themselves illegal aliens if those children completed high school and/or served in the military.

Guests on some of the Sunday talk shows were saying what a terrible thing it is to deny citizenship to men and women who serve in the military, and other supporters of the act have expressed similar sentiments. Here are some examples from the linked article:
“A minority of senators prevented the Senate from doing what most Americans understand is best for the country,” Obama said. “There was simply no reason not to pass this important legislation.”

“This is a dark day in America,” said Jorje-Mario Cabrera, a spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights in Los Angeles. “The Senate has … thrown under the bus the lives and hard work of thousands and thousands of students who love this country like their own home, and, in fact, they have no other home.”

“They stand in the classrooms and pledge allegiance to our flag,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the bill’s chief sponsor. “This is the only country they have ever known. All they’re asking for is a chance to serve this nation.”

“This country has a history of opening its arms,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. “Today, it’s arms were closed, but we’re going to get there.”
Be all this as it may, the failure to give these children a path to citizenship lies squarely on the shoulders of those, both Democrats and Republicans, who have refused to take the common sense measures necessary to solve the problem of illegal immigration and to insure that granting citizenship to those who complete high school or serve in the military isn't simply a first step toward granting citizenship to tens of millions of other aliens who entered this country illegally.

If people really want to see the DREAM act passed in some future congress all they need do to win over their opponents is the following:
  • Do what it takes to secure the border. Illegal immigration must be slowed to a trickle before any reform makes sense. Otherwise, we're laying the carpet in the house before we've put the roof on.
  • Insure that no one who came here illegally as an adult will be granted citizenship as long as they remain in this country. To grant them citizenship is to reward illegal entry and to guarantee more of it.
  • Alter the current interpretation of the 13th amendment. The amendment has been interpreted to confer citizenship on any children born here to parents who arrived illegally. Conservative scholars argue that this is a misreading of the amendment and it should be clarified or changed.
There has been little appetite in Congress for any of these changes, mostly because Democrats see the illegal alien population as a vast sea of potential Democrat voters and Republicans see them as a vast sea of cheap labor. Both see them as the solution to funding the social security shortfall.

I'm quite sure though, that if congress and the president were able to pass legislation that allayed the three concerns mentioned above there would be a lot more support for legislation like the DREAM act among the general public and among those Senators who currently oppose it.

That Congress (and the administration) refuses to do this suggests that granting a path to citizenship for the children of illegals is not really the goal but rather a sly first step toward granting amnesty to all illegal aliens. Let's give these children, who are here through no choice of their own, who have never really known any other home, a chance to become citizens, but only after we've made sure that they're the only ones who'll be awarded that prize.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Expelled for Being "Potentially Evangelical"

Martin Gaskell is by all accounts one of the better scientists on the faculty of the University of Kentucky. Unfortunately for Professor Gaskell he's a bit of an iconoclast and heretic. You may have thought that universities nurtured such qualities in their faculty and students, but you would be wrong. That's only true when the iconoclasm is directed at things like Christianity or conservative politics. Rejecting these, especially with a contemptuous air, is the sort of thing that's much admired on college campuses, and those who indulge in it are often feted as courageous and bold heroes of academic freedom.

Professor Gaskell, to be sure, is skeptical of certain religious beliefs, but the religion about which he expresses his doubts is Darwinian naturalism, and that's simply an unacceptable breach of intellectual propriety and orthodoxy at UK as elsewhere.

What was the precise nature of his offense? Uncommon Descent provides some details:
No one denies that astronomer Martin Gaskell was the leading candidate for the founding director of a new observatory at the University of Kentucky in 2007 — until his writings on evolution came to light.

Gaskell had given lectures to campus religious groups around the country in which he said that while he has no problem reconciling the Bible with the theory of evolution, he believes the theory has major flaws. And he recommended students read theory critics in the intelligent-design movement.

That stance alarmed UK science professors and, the university acknowledges, played a role in the job going to another candidate.

Now a federal judge says Gaskell has a right to a jury trial over his allegation that he lost the job because he is a Christian and “potentially evangelical.”

“The record contains substantial evidence that Gaskell was a leading candidate for the position until the issue of his religion or his scientific position became an issue,” U.S. Senior District Judge Karl S. Forester of the Eastern District of Kentucky wrote late last month in rejecting the university’s motion for summary judgment, which would have dismissed the case.

Forester has set a trial date of Feb. 8 on Gaskell’s claims the university violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s ban on job bias on the basis of religion.

UK, in a legal brief, acknowledged that concerns over Gaskell’s views on evolution played a role in the decision to chose another candidate. But it argued that this was a valid scientific concern, and that there were other factors, including a poor review from a previous supervisor and UK faculty views that he was a poor listener.

In its brief, UK said professors worried about Gaskell’s “casual blending of religion and science” and feared the then-planned MacAdam Student Observatory’s “true mission … would be thwarted by controversy that has nothing to do with astronomy.”

Gaskell’s lawsuit, however, argues UK officials repeatedly referred to his religion in their discussions and e-mails. And he argues that UK mistook him for a creationist — someone who believes the Bible disproves the theory of evolution.
Well, Professor Gaskell should be thankful he still has a teaching job, although that, too, may be in jeopardy for all we know. But what did he say that caused the UK high priests to rent their garments and remove him from consideration for the directorship at the UK observatory? At this point, no one knows for sure, but Joseph Knippenberg provides some quotes from Gaskell's lecture notes on a talk he gives on "Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation".

If you're disturbed by reading heretical opinions then I suggest you skip these paragraphs. They're very troubling, especially if one is a Darwinian fundamentalist:
“God made everything pretty much as it is now in six 24-hour days about 6000 years ago” – the so-called “Creationist” position (a bad name! – I, and many writers on the subject prefer the name “Young-Earth Creationist” for this position). This is the position of the Creation Research Society (CRS), the San Diego based Institute for Creation Research (ICR), and a number of other “Creation Science” organizations. I have a lot of respect for people who hold this view because they are strongly committed to the Bible, but I don’t believe it is the interpretation the Bible requires of itself, and it certainly clashes head-on with science.

“The Answers are not in yet”. This is part of my own viewpoint. I believe that God has not yet revealed everything to us in the Bible (see Deuteronomy 29:29 and I Corinthians 13:9-10,12), and I know that we don’t know all the answers in science yet.

The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). “Creationists” attack the science of “evolutionists”. I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations.

It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations). While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called “Intelligent Design”. This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis.
Pretty raw stuff. I mean, the man is obviously sympathetic to intelligent design, and worse, Christianity, and he seems to be trying to give an objective, unbiased factual explanation, of all things, of the controversy between "creationists" and Darwinian naturalists over origins. This objectivity apparently poses such a threat to UK's standards of academic decency that the university simply cannot allow it to be tolerated. To be sure, Professor Gaskell affirms the scientific consensus on matters of origins and evolution. That's not the problem. The problem is that he manifestly rejects the naturalistic religion that many scientists hold to be the one true faith.

I don't know if there's anything to it, but there's a rumor floating about that the higher-ups at UK have summoned the men in this video to come to Kentucky to deal with people like Professor Gaskell.

Mexico Calls in Their Marines

Mexico has turned up the heat on its drug cartels in the last year. It's now using special ops Marines, aided by American intelligence, in the war against the cartels and they're proving to be lethally effective. Strategy Page has an interesting report on this escalation:
Mexico-U.S. cooperation in running counter-drug operations has increased over the last 18 months. The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been providing intelligence to Mexican police and other security forces, including the Mexican Navy's elite marine commandos. The Mexican marines have carried out several very high profile (and successful raids), beginning in 2009. The strikes often target drug cartel leaders and senior drug cartel enforcers (hit men).

Critics are arguing that the DEA is going around Mexican police because the U.S. is concerned about corruption in the police forces. That is very true, but the conspiracy theorists seem to ignore the fact that just about every other day the Mexican government points out that it is concerned about police corruption. Unreliable or corrupt police forces is one reason it began using military forces – the other reason being the drug cartels have more firepower than local and state cops.

Several of the more spectacular Mexican marine operations in northwestern Mexico are special operations raids, both strike raids and snatch (arrest) raids. The marines treat the cartelistas as an insurgent force and the cartel leaders as insurgent commanders.
There's more on this at the link.

The drug cartels are waging a low-level civil war in Mexico and elsewhere in Central and South America. Hopefully, the combination of highly trained combat forces and American intelligence-gathering capabilities will make their business more risky and less profitable than it has been up till now.

The Doxastic Minimum

There's an interesting discussion at Uncommon Descent on the question of what exactly is the minimum one can believe and be a Christian. The specific trigger for that question was the question whether one could be a Darwinist and still be a Christian. Denise O'Leary says no, Barry Arrington, citing Paul (Romans 10: 9,10) as his authority, argues that technically they can. O'Leary's response to Arrington is here. Perhaps they're both right. If, as Arrington points out, a Darwinist confesses belief in Jesus as Lord and also believes that He rose from the dead, then he's a Christian. Nevertheless, as O'Leary argues, it's difficult in practice to find people who are serious Darwinists who believe in a God who works the kind of miracles the Incarnation and the Resurrection require.

Darwinism is the belief that natural processes are completely responsible for the appearance and development of living things. No intelligent agent was involved.* Thus, Darwinists almost always believe that God has no role in evolution or the creation, and that if He exists at all he's somewhat like Aristotle's Prime Mover. Moreover, as O'Leary points out, Darwinism entails that Christianity is itself the product of blind, impersonal, purposeless forces acting in human societies and resulting in all the different belief systems we see in the world. The idea that the Christian faith is really the product of purposeful divine intervention is antithetical to a Darwinian worldview which is uncompromisingly naturalistic.

Arrington is saying that it's possible for a Darwinst to believe that God has acted in the world whereas O'Leary maintains that in practice they can do so only by setting aside their naturalism. Arrington is right in establishing Romans 10 as the doxastic minimum. O'Leary is right in pointing out that a Darwinist is logically prohibited from embracing that minimum.

*Thus, views like theistic evolution, or God-directed evolution are not Darwinian in the strict sense.

Friday, December 17, 2010

ATP Synthase

Every high school biology student learns that the molecule that provides the energy for the metabolic requirements of every cell in living things is ATP. ATP is synthesized in the cell from a precursor called ADP. This process is catalyzed by an enzyme named ATP Synthase which is a tiny molecular motor of astonishing design. Here's a video that gives an idea of just how remarkable this protein motor is:
The narrator states that these structures are evolutionary impossibilities, but I don't know why he says that. All that had to happen was lots of mutations acting on lots of genes which control lots of proteins, a pinch of pixie dust, a wave of a magic wand, and a few miracles from mother nature, and anyone can see that motors such as these would be almost inevitable, even within the relatively brief window of time between the point when genetic material learned to replicate and the appearance of the first cells.

If you're skeptical it's because you lack faith in the power of blind, impersonal forces to do miracles. You need to try harder to convince yourself that engineering marvels don't necessarily require intelligent engineers. After all, if you put all the individual molecules that comprise a computer in a box and set it out in the wind and sun, after enough time there could be a fully functioning pc in the box. Just ask any Darwinian.

Thanks to Uncommon Descent for the tip.

Merry Reasonmas

Over at Telic Thoughts Bradford calls our attention to the latest doings among our atheist friends. It turns out that the American Atheists association has erected a billboard on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel which says, "You Know It's a Myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason." The billboard cost them $20,000 which would have bought Christmas dinners for a lot of poor children in New Jersey, but never mind that.

Reading about the sign has actually put me in the spirit of celebrating Reason and all the wonderful blessings that pure Reason, unencumbered by any mystical, superstitious theistic nonsense, has bestowed upon us. It has, for example, given us state atheism which, in its twentieth century communist incarnation, was responsible for the murders of over 100 million people. The communists believed that they were following the dictates of Reason as they slaughtered their millions, and indeed, they were.

If man is nothing more than a machine, to which conclusion Reason, without the constraint of religious insight, leads us, then he has no special dignity (See Harvard neuroscientist Steven Pinker on the stupidity of thinking we have dignity), no worth, no meaning, none of that anthropocentric silliness Christianity has foisted upon us, so why not simply eliminate him if his existence proves inconvenient?

Consider a few other conclusions arrived at by some of Reason's modern herald angels:
‘You,’ your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules. As Lewis Carroll’s Alice might have phrased it: ‘You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.’ - biologist Francis Crick in The Astonishing Hypothesis
If you and I are just a pack of neurons neither of us is ultimately distinguishable from the other and therefore no individual is intrinsically valuable. We're like so many cattle to be milked, herded, bred, or slaughtered as those in power see fit. Here are a couple more meditations for the Reason holiday:
[T]he worldview of science is rather chilling. Not only do we not find any point to life laid out for us in nature, no objective basis for our moral principles, no correspondence between what we think is the moral law and the laws of nature, of the sort imagined by philosophers from Anaximander and Plato to Emerson. We even learn that the emotions that we most treasure, our love for our wives and husbands and children, are made possible by chemical processes in our brains that are what they are as a result of natural selection acting on chance mutations over millions of years. - Physicist Steven Weinberg

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. - biologist Richard Dawkins
Don't these thoughts, the deliverances of unadulterated Reason, just warm your heart this Reasonmas season? If only there was a Reason Eve the devout would surely compose a vast body of beautiful music and carols to celebrate the event, and atheists, swept up in the ineffable spirit of the day, would open wide the doors of their hearts, as well as their purses, to their fellows during this magical time. Or maybe not.

Some have gotten swept along by the logic of celebrating reason and have just gone, well, to extremes. For example, consider this perfectly sensible question:
If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then — then what’s the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing.
What an impeccably rational piece of thinking. It was written by Jeffrey Dahmer. And then there's this:
What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.
Indeed, it is. That provocative question was posed by uber atheist and man of Reason Richard Dawkins, and he's right. If there is no God who's to say Hitler was wrong? So, this year let's dispense with all that Christian claptrap about God becoming man and saving us from our sins. Let's just worship Reason's marvelous ability to produce such moral profundities as we've listed above. Let's also pray to the goddess Reason that no one actually takes the worship of her glorious self too seriously and follows the logic of it too far.

Let's celebrate Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men this Reasonmas. At least those men who are the same ethnicity, race, nationality, and sexual orientation as we are. All others, of course, are the losers in the grand evolutionary struggle for survival, but let's not think about that.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Greater Evil

In Sudan a woman suspected of prostitution is treated much differently than she would be in a civilized society not run by brutes. The punishment the woman in this video is subjected to is horrible enough, but to laugh at her agony, as one of her tormenters does, is simple savagery. Which is worse, we might ask, to commit prostitution or to sadistically whip a woman fifty three times for the offense? Which is more evil, prostitution or a law that demands such barbaric sentences?

Be advised that this is not easy to watch:
CNN has the details.

It tells us something about the ideological quirkiness of the left, I suppose, that here and abroad leftists were horrified and outraged by revelations that the United States had waterboarded three murderous terrorists in hopes of saving thousands of innocent lives, among whom, no doubt, were many women. Meanwhile, cruel atrocities such as we see on this video are perpetrated daily in cities and villages throughout North Africa and the Middle East, wherever Sharia law is strictly enforced, and the world's leftists just turn their heads and yawn.

When the U.S., in order to prevent mass murder, uses an interrogation technique which causes no real pain nor permanent harm, it is roundly condemned. It's told that it is just creating more terrorists, and that it is committing crimes against humanity. But when genuine torture is used in an Islamic, African country, not to save lives, but as punishment for a non-violent offense, one hears scarcely more than a quiet tsk, tsk from the left.

Why is that? Is it that, with the exception of a few intrepid voices like those of Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman, the left is afraid to criticize the behavior of Muslims? Or is it black Africans whose behavior they can't bring themselves to condemn? Or is it both?

Anyway, don't hold your breath waiting for this video to get the sort of play on the world's evening news programs that Abu Ghraib received.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Life's Meaning and the Death of God

Sean Kelley is the chair of the Harvard philosophy department, and he's written an essay on, as far as I can tell, the meaning of life now that God is dead. Or something like that. I'm not sure because the piece isn't entirely clear, which may, of course, say more about my comprehension skills than Kelley's writing ability.

At any rate, Kelley seems to be saying that even in the absence of God life can still be pretty meaningful:
The meaning that one finds in a life dedicated to “the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fire-side, the country,” these are genuine meanings. They are, in other words, completely sufficient to hold off the threat of nihilism, the threat that life will dissolve into a sequence of meaningless events. But they are nothing like the kind of universal meanings for which the monotheistic tradition of Christianity had hoped.

Indeed, when taken up in the appropriate way, the commitments that animate the meanings in one person’s life ─ to family, say, or work, or country, or even local religious community ─ become completely consistent with the possibility that someone else with radically different commitments might nevertheless be living in a way that deserves one’s admiration.

The death of God therefore, ... leads not to a culture overtaken by meaninglessness but to a culture directed by a rich sense for many new possible and incommensurate meanings.
Well, maybe, but I doubt it. After all, just because someone considers their life meaningful doesn't make it so. The question I'd like to see Professor Kelley address is this: If death is the end of our existence, if the fate of every living being is annihilation, why and how does anything we do really matter?

Almost everything we do in our day to day lives we do in order to stay alive, and we strive to stay alive so that we can perform those day to day tasks. We're inescapably caught in a cycle of meaninglessness. Even the pleasures that some are able to enjoy before they die are like a prisoner's last steak before he's executed. None of what we do matters unless it lasts forever, but unless there's a God nothing lasts forever. A couple of generations from now 99% of the people who have ever lived, along with everything they did in their lives, will be utterly forgotten. How can any of it have meaning? What does it matter that you went to college, worked at a job, had a family, loved your dog, collected stamps, baked cookies, suffered an illness, and ultimately died? What difference does any of it make once we're gone and forgotten?

At the blog The Philosopher's Magazine there's an essay on this topic titled Meaning Machines. The commenters weigh in with their views on what the purpose of an individual life is, and from these folks we learn that it's in fact nothing more than reproducing and "creating protein".

That's where atheism leads us. Man can't live without meaning, but according to the atheist there just isn't any meaning to be found. There are only activities that we enjoy while we wait around to die - like condemned men playing checkers to pass the time until they're marched to the gallows. Atheists themselves can't live with this. Their reason tells them there's no meaning to their life, but, unable to bear the existential burden of nihilism and wishing to avoid despair, they abandon reason and live irrationally as if there's some point to it all.

Writers like Kelley are simply doing philosophical cosmetology. They're trying to cover and soften the ugly truth by pretending that it's not really there. Perhaps the following quotes will give a sense of the despair felt by some of those who are willing to face the consequences of the "death of God" honestly:
  • Life is a short day’s journey from nothingness to nothingness. – Ernst Hemmingway
  • All we are is dust in the wind. – Kansas
  • The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. - Woody Allen (from Hannah and Her Sisters)
  • God is empty and so am I – Smashing Pumpkins (Zero)
  • In all of our searching the only thing we’ve found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. – Carl Sagan (Contact)
  • There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. – Albert Camus (Myth of Sisyphus)
  • The only plausible answer to the problem of the meaning of life is to live, to be alive and to leave more life. – Theodosius Dobzhansky
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear – and these are basically Darwin’s views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death…There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will… - Cornell biolgist Will Provine
  • The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. - Richard Dawkins
  • Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal. - Jean Paul Sartre
  • Ah, mon cher, for anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. - Albert Camus
  • Life is an unpleasant interruption of nothingness. – Clarence Darrow
  • Neither the existence of the individual nor that of humanity has any purpose. – Bernard Rensch
  • Life is a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is seen no more. It is a tale told by an idiot; full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. – William Shakespeare (Macbeth)
  • If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what am I here for….Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and [thus] life has no meaning.” Somerset Maugham (The Summing Up)
  • I was thinking…that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there’s nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing. Jean Paul Sartre (Nausea)
The worldview of the atheist is pretty bleak. Modern man is dying of spiritual inanition, and the atheist offers him a piece of dry leather to chew on. Indeed, that's all he can offer him. It's all he has.