Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Who's the Moron?

Dallas Pastor and Rick Perry supporter Robert Jeffress has created a bit of a storm by wading into waters he probably should have stayed clear of. The pastor made several claims that have gotten him into some serious turbulence but they distill to this:
Mormonism is not a Christian religion, it's a cult, and therefore Christians should not vote for Mitt Romney because Christians have an obligation to vote for Christians.
I disagree with Pastor Jeffress that Christians are obligated to vote for Christians just as I disagree with those who say that blacks are duty-bound to vote for blacks. I agree with Martin Luther who said that he'd rather be ruled by a competent Turk than an incompetent Christian.

If a man is clearly the most competent candidate, reveres the constitution, is virtuous and otherwise qualified, then his religion doesn't matter much as far as being my president is concerned.

Even so, I don't think a man is a moron for saying that Christians should vote for a Christian candidate anymore than I think a member of any other group is a moron who urges his fellows to vote for one of their own. Did the people who today criticize Pastor Jeffress also criticize blacks who argued in 2008 that African-Americans had a duty to vote for Barack Obama because he was black?

And I especially don't think the pastor is a moron for saying that Mormonism is not Christian and is, in fact, a cult. This is, despite what the august theologians on MSNBC's Morning Joe show think, the mainstream view among Evangelical Christians. It's not my view, as it happens, but plenty of very intelligent people hold it, and their reasons for doing so are not trivial.

Thus, I thought John Huntsman, Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough embarrassed themselves (again) this morning by gratuitously insulting the pastor for stating clearly what is widely accepted among conservative religious thinkers. They can sniff, if they wish, that the pastor and millions of other Christians are theologically mistaken, but to call Jeffress a moron for articulating this belief shows that they are not only arrogant and unkind, but also that they simply don't know what they're talking about.

It makes one wonder who is the real moron:
I suppose this sort of ad hominem is what passes among liberals and faux conservatives like Scarborough as the new tone in our political discourse that President Obama called for in the wake of the Gabriel Giffords shooting.

By the way, did anyone at MSNBC ever call Jeremiah Wright a moron? Just asking.

Religion and Science in Conflict?

Sociologist John H. Evans of the UC San Diego Division of Social Sciences writes an editorial in the LA Times in which he calls for greater understanding between people working in science and religion. Evans means well and offers some helpful advice, but some of what he says reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of what the conflict is all about. Here are some examples:
There are, of course, a few fact claims in which conservative Protestant theology and science differ, such as the origins of humans and the universe. Here we find that typical conservative Protestants are likely to believe the teaching of their religion on the issue and not the scientific claim. < br />
We could complain that they are being inconsistent in believing the scientific method some of the time but not always. Yet social science research has long shown that people typically are not very consistent.
I don't think anyone "believes the scientific method" or disbelieves it. The scientific method, if there even is such a thing, is not something which one believes or not, as one does a proposition. Nor is there any significant disagreement over the empirical facts scientists have discovered.

What is at issue between many religious people and many people who work in the scientific disciplines is which metaphysical view of the world, naturalism or theism, best explains and interprets those facts. In other words, the conflict Evans writes about is not between science and religion but between two competing sets of philosophical assumptions.

This is evident in the next excerpt where Evans talks about unobservable abstractions.
Besides, conservative Protestants don't think of their own views as inconsistent, and they have a long-standing way, going back to at least the mid-19th century, of dividing the scientific findings they believe and don't believe. They tend to accept scientists' claims that are based on direct observation and common sense and to reject those based on what might be called unobservable abstractions. Since nobody was around for the Big Bang and for human evolution from lower primates, these unobservable claims are treated with more skepticism than measurements of the effect of airborne carbon on planetary temperature.
An unobservable abstraction is not something scientists should be dogmatic about. The unobservable may be heuristically useful, but if someone finds that it is incompatible with other metaphysical beliefs that they hold the scientist is ill-positioned to argue about it. Scientists can only argue about what can be empirically demonstrated and tested. Unobservable abstractions are usually neither of these.

Once scientists start talking about unobservables, unless they can devise a way to test the unobservable, they're no longer doing science they're doing metaphysics.
Understanding what concerns the "other side" would help. Those wishing to affect public policy on issues such as climate change, for example, need to make it clear to conservative Protestants that the science of global warming is based more on direct observations than on analytic abstractions, that it is more like determining the average body temperature of a human than where humans came from.
Again Evans seems to misunderstand. Those Protestants who are climate change skeptics are not skeptics for religious reasons. Religion, indeed, has nothing to do with it. They remain dubious because they're not convinced that the science supports the claims of those who believe climate change is going to be catastrophic, costly, and that it's man-made.
Conservative Protestants, in turn, should make distinctions between scientific areas where in which they are in moral conflict with science, such as embryonic stem cell research, and those areas where they are not.
But there are no areas where conservative Protestants are in moral conflict with science. There's no dispute about the science involved in stem cell research. The dispute is about whether human embryos should be killed in order to harvest their cells. That's a moral conflict between people who believe it's wrong to take the life of a human, potential or otherwise, and those who believe it's not wrong to take a human life in the early stages of development.
To move forward, we, as a country, need to lower the political conflict. Yes, the views found in fundamentalist churches are not exactly the same as those at the National Science Foundation. But we would see less of the polarizing "we real Americans" rhetoric from the religious right if its members were not ridiculed as know-nothings. Conservative Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to all science.
One can appreciate Professor Evan's intent here while nevertheless wincing at his claim that "Conservative Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to all science." The fact is that conservative Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to science at all. What they oppose is the insistence that only naturalistic, materialistic explanations be permitted to interpret the data collected in the course of scientific investigation. They see this rule as intellectually limiting and metaphysically prejudicial.

To put it differently, conservatives agree with the dictum of philosopher and psychologist William James who wrote that "Any rule of thinking that would absolutely prevent me from acknowledging certain kinds of truth, if these kinds of truth were really there, would be an irrational rule."

Now They Tell Us

Mark Steyn brings his razor sharp wit to bear in a column for Investors Business Daily in which he skewers the media and academic elites for how they gushed over Barack Obama in 2008 and are now realizing how naive and gullible they were. Their expressions of remorse and regret at having been blinded by the "crease in his pants" and seduced by the "thrill up their legs" are little comfort to those who accepted their judgment and voted for a man with no real record and about whom they knew almost nothing:
"The way I think about it," Barack Obama told a TV station in Orlando, "is, you know, this is a great, great country that had gotten a little soft."

He has a point. This is a great, great country that got so soft that 53% of electors voted for a ludicrously unqualified chief executive who would be regarded as a joke candidate in any serious nation.

One should not begrudge a man who seizes his opportunity. But one should certainly hold in contempt those who allow him to seize it on the basis of such flaccid generalities as "hope" and "change": That's more than "a little" soft.

"He's probably the smartest guy ever to become president," declared presidential historian Michael Beschloss the day after the 2008 election. But you don't have to be that smart to put one over on all the smart guys.

"I'm a sap, a specific kind of sap. I'm an Obama Sap," admits David Brooks, the softest touch at the New York Times. Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek, now says of the president: "He wasn't ready, it turns out, really."

If you're a tenured columnist at the Times, you can just about afford the consequences of your sappiness. But among the hundreds of thousands of your readers who didn't know you were a sap until you told them three years later, soft choices have hard consequences.
Steyn goes on in this vein for the rest of the column. He's relentless in taking the celebrity media to task for assuring us in 2008 that we could put a community organizer in charge of a multitrillion dollar economy and have it turn out well. It was like being assured that giving the keys for a Ferrari to a ten year old is what any wise, sophisticated Ferrari owner should do.

During the campaign it was a common occurrence for someone in the audience of Mr. Obama's speeches to faint from ecstasy at the sound of his voice and the splendor of his words. Now, as we teeter on the brink of economic collapse, as millions of college grads leave school up to their eyeballs in debt with no job prospects suitable for their level of education, as unemployment in the black community hits historic highs, no one swoons anymore when he speaks.

The Nanny State

A while ago I made the comment that there lurks in the heart of many liberals a predilection for totalitarianism. Not that these folks are themselves totalitarians, necessarily, but that the policies they often support push us further down the road toward that end. The comment was not universally well-received by liberal readers, but I stand by it and offer as further evidence of my claim this story out of Brussels by the Telegraph's Bruno Waterfield. His lede reads:
Children are to be banned from taking part in traditional Christmas games, from blowing up balloons to blowing on party whistles, because of new EU safety rules that have just entered into force.
It sounds like a story out of The Onion but apparently it's genuine: The EU toy safety directive, agreed and implemented by Government, states that balloons must not be blown up by unsupervised children under the age of eight, in case they accidentally swallow them and choke.

Despite having been popular favourites for generations of children, party games including whistles and magnetic fishing games are to be banned because their small parts or chemicals used in making them are decreed to be too risky.

Apparently harmless toys that children have enjoyed for decades are now regarded by EU regulators as posing an unacceptable safety risk.

Whistle blowers, that scroll out into a a long coloured paper tongue when sounded – a party favourite at family Christmas meals – are now classed as unsafe for all children under 14.
The new rules are designed to protect children from the chance that a piece of the whistle could be swallowed and cause choking.

There's more at the link. One wonders what the EU regulators will think to ban next. Perhaps children under 14 will be prohibited from eating chicken for fear that the tykes will choke on a bone.

The problem is that bureaucrats have the job of writing regulations. That's what they do, it's what they get paid for and what makes their lives meaningful. So write them they must, no matter how stupid, intrusive, and tyrannical they may be. The last two sentences in the article shed light on the bureaucratic mindset:
Another EU official admitted that the new regulations could be difficult to understand but insisted that safety experts knew best. "You might say that small children have been blowing up balloons for generations, but not anymore and they will be safer for it," said an official.
That's precisely the kind of thinking that leads to Animal Farm.