Tag Archives: Religion

The devil is in the details: WHICH Christianity are we making the official state religion, exactly?

Legislators in North Carolina recently introduced a bill to make Christianity the official state religion. That bill has now been turfed, but we can probably expect similar moves in the future.

An Omnibus Poll, sponsored by YouGov.com and the Huffington Post, reveals just how far from the nation’s roots we have traveled on the subject of separating church and state and retaining the nation’s neutrality when it comes to how Americans chose to practice their respective religions.

According to the survey, 34 percent of Americans would favor making Christianity their official state religion while less than half (47 percent) oppose the concept. Thirty-two percent of those polled indicated that they would also favor a constitutional amendment that would make Christianity the official religion of the United States with just over half (52 percent) opposing the notion.

Leaving aside for a second the abject failure of millions of Americans to grasp the most basic precepts of their Constitution, this poll actually provides more questions than answers. Continue reading The devil is in the details: WHICH Christianity are we making the official state religion, exactly?

Has NASA discovered life on Mars? If so, what are the implications?

Something is up with the Curiosity rover mission. Except nobody will tell us what it is. But they’re sure acting like it’s a big deal.

It seems NASA and the Curiosity rover have found something exciting and nerd-tastic on Mars, but the space agency’s scientists are holding back for now, despite how painful it appears to be for them.

NPR science correspondent Joe Palca happened to be in the room recently when John Grotzinger, lead scientist for the Curiosity mission at NASA, started receiving data on his computer from the rover’s on-board chemistry lab, also known as SAM (sample analysis at Mars). SAM and NASA scientists on Earth have been busy analyzing a sample of Martian soil of late, and apparently the dirt from the Red Planet has a secret to tell.

“This data is going to be one for the history books, it’s looking really good,” Grotzinger said in the story that aired yesterday.

And that’s about all he said.

Grotzinger and NASA have remained mum on what exactly Curiosity may have found in the Martian soil, saying it could be several more weeks until they’re able to verify the data. The scientists need to make sure whatever earth-shattering find they have isn’t an error or perhaps some kind of stowaway molecule or whatever it may be that hitched one really long ride from Earth.

Hmmm. So the reporter turned to another source in search of some informed speculation.

Lewis Dartnell is a leading astrobiologist at The Centre For Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck in London. He makes it clear that with so little to go on, no one outside of NASA can know what the agency thinks it has, but, he says, “the SAM instrument is designed to detect organic molecules on Mars, so the smart money is on an announcement along those lines.”

That’s right, the smart money is on what we all were already thinking — LIFE ON MARS.

Wow. That would be one of the four or five biggest discoveries in human history, wouldn’t it? Or not. The agency has now trotted out a spokesman to hose the rumors down with cold water.

“John was delighted about the quality and range of information coming in from SAM during the day a reporter happened to be sitting in John’s office last week. He has been similarly delighted by results at other points during the mission so far,” spokesman Guy Webster told AFP.

“The scientists want to gain confidence in the findings before taking them outside of the science team. As for history books, the whole mission is for the history books,” Webster said.

So, what can we conclude from these mysterious events? For starters, let’s note that the spokesman with the cold water did not say the speculation was incorrect. He did not deny that Curiosity has found evidence of life on Mars (or, for that matter, actual life on Mars). This is perhaps significant. For sure, I know carefully crafted PR-speak when I see it (having carefully crafted a good bit of it throughout the course of my career), and this is official language that’s scrupulously saying not a damned thing. The whole “it’s all historic!” line is pure misdirection. In other words, the PR statement has made me more suspicious, not less.

Why the secrecy, though? There are a number of possible explanations. For one thing, this is science, and science is about gathering, analyzing and verifying evidence. The timetables this process employs are completely at odds with those preferred by ratings-mad media agencies on a 24/7 “news” cycle. They’re not trying to generate sensational headlines – on the contrary. Until they know precisely what they’re dealing with they’d rather generate no headlines at all, and I’m willing to wager that Dr. Grotzinger has been on the business end of a stern talking-to today for reacting that way in front of a reporter.

Another possibility is that they have uncovered a landmark moment in human history. If so, it so radically alters what we know about the universe and our place in it that official acknowledgement of the discovery requires deep consideration.

Let’s speculate a bit. Say that Curiosity has, in fact, discovered life on Mars. What does it mean? The dominant assumption throughout most of history, driven primarily by religious exceptionalists, was that Earth is home to the only life in the universe. More recently we’ve discovered that the portions of the universe that we can detect, observe and examine contain several Earth-like planets that could theoretically support life. These analyses employ narrow definitions and, obviously, we cannot yet study more than the smallest fraction of the universe. Basic probability suggests that it’s unlikely we’re alone.

Still, it is one thing to speculate that life might exist, or even that it probably exists, and another entirely to have evidence of extra-terrestrial life.

So if NASA has, in fact, discovered life on Mars, it turns our assumptions upside down. Instead of viewing life as something unspeakably rare, if not utterly unique to Earth, we overnight have to assume that life isn’t rare at all – it’s common as dirt. Instead of life being too complex to evolve more than once, it becomes something that evolves as a matter of routine. Put another way, at that stage we will have evidence that life exists on two-thirds of the worlds that we have knowledge of. Never mind what are the odds of life elsewhere in the universe – if it evolved on two planets that are side-by-side, what are the odds that they’re the only two? If you’ll pardon the expression, the chances would be astronomical.

For the moment, we have no idea what’s going on at NASA right now. We do know that there have been other bits of evidence suggesting that the conditions for life may have once existed on Mars, and we know what SAM was designed to look for. It’s therefore not unreasonable to speculate a bit in the spirit of the joy of discovery.

If Curiosity has uncovered extraterrestrial life, I personally cannot wait for the official announcement and the uproar to follow. It might do us arrogant humans good to learn that we have neighbors, even if they’re microscopic ones.

Image Credit: NASA

The most important lesson we should all learn from the 2012 election

“You idiot! Get back in there at once and sell, sell!”

As we set about the process of compiling and canonizing the 2012 election post-mortem, one thing we keep hearing over and over is how utterly stunned the Romney camp was at their loss. Republicans across the board apparently expected victory – the conservative punditry seemed certain of it – and now we’re hearing that Romney himself was “shellshocked” by the result.

Mitt Romney went into Election Night expecting a victory and was “shellshocked” when he finally realized he had lost, CBS News reported.

Despite early signs of a stronger-than-expected turnout for President Obama, it wasn’t until the crucial state of Ohio was called for the president that Romney began to face the likelihood of defeat.

Even then, he and his team had trouble processing the news, senior advisers told CBS News.

“We went into the evening confident we had a good path to victory,” one adviser said. “I don’t think there was one person who saw this coming.”

Well, Nate Silver saw it coming. His projections called the final outcome almost down to the precinct, and it’s not like he doesn’t have a track record.

Silver’s final 2008 presidential election forecast accurately predicted the winner of 49 of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia (missing only the prediction for Indiana). As his model predicted, the races in Missouri and North Carolina were particularly close. He also correctly predicted the winners of every U.S. Senate race.

It wasn’t just Silver. Almost all the polls showed Obama with at least a slight lead in the battleground states, and if we can believe CNN’s election night insiders, Mitt’s own tracking showed him five points adrift in Ohio as late as Sunday (which explains why he set up camp there when many expected him to focus his energies elsewhere).

In other words, all the data, all the nonpartisan analysis, all the evidence, made clear that Romney’s chances were slim. It’s understandable that he and his people would be disappointed, and mightily so. But surprised? How does that happen?

In a nutshell, the GOP blindsided themselves. The reason should be obvious to anyone who has paid any attention at all to American politics in recent years: an overabundance of blind faith. I don’t mean this in a religious sense (although the political and socio-scientific manifestations of the phenomenon issue from strong religious antecedents). Instead, I’m referring to the broad, swelling inability (or unwillingness) to distinguish between belief and knowledge.

As noted, nearly all the polls showed Romney in trouble. Most broke out their results in ways that clearly suggested why he was in trouble. The rational response to such information is to take it onboard, adapt and adjust. But that’s not what the GOP did. Instead, they dismissed the data that didn’t align with their beliefs. They went so far as to “unskew” the polls because they were clearly biased in favor of Mr. Obama. How do we know they were biased? Because they favored Mr. Obama. UnskewedPolls.com performed some ideological/mathematical hijinks and produced “corrected” polls that demonstrated how Mr. Romney was actually leading. By a lot.

The resulting projected electoral map was positively Reaganesque.

You might argue that the rational response isn’t to adapt and adjust if there is actually reason to believe that all the polls are, in fact, skewed. This objection is fair, so long as your reasons for doing so are driven by factual concerns instead of ideological ones. I think it’s more than clear, by now, that GOP faith in a Romney win was driven by belief instead of knowledge isn’t it?

The upshot is what we saw Tuesday night and in the days following: shock, dismay, confusion. Romney and his people (here I’ll include the GOP’s media relations arm, FOX News) didn’t see the obvious coming and some were melting down as reality began to assert its ugly presence in ways that even Megyn Kelly couldn’t ignore. Sure, Karl Rove had an excuse for going all Randolph Duke on the set. He’d just spent $600M of rich folks’ money and had a pack of nabs to show for it, an outcome with dire implications for his future career prospects. Of course he was losing it – he was seeing his political life pass before his eyes as the Ohio totals ticked in. Again, though, this was a live, nationally televised case study in self-delusion: it isn’t true because sweet Jesus it just can’t be.

I keep using these terms “knowledge” and “belief.” I suspect that many people across the country might initially grapple with the difference (in fact, I know this to be the case). So let me define these terms, at least operationally, for the benefit of those who don’t understand the distinction.

  • Knowledge is a process whereby conclusions derive from information and reasoning.
  • Belief is a process whereby preconceptions govern the pursuit of information.

In other words, with knowledge, you learn all you can in as rigorous and intellectually honest a fashion as possible, then you figure out what it means. With belief, the conclusions are given from the outset and data is selected and discarded according to whether or not it supports the point you’re trying to make.

Accepting facts that run counter to what we believe, and what we want to believe, and even what we desperately need to believe, can be hard. I understand the difficulty as well as anyone. I personally now believe pretty much the opposite of nearly every important thing I believed as a young man, and I have frequently noted how many times my beliefs changed because I was proven wrong by the very smart people with whom I insisted on surrounding myself. I’ve always been a fan of the famous John Maynard Keynes quote: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

As hard as it is to investigate contrary information and opinions, though, it’s imperative that we do so. With gusto. The Republican Party had all the evidence there before them throughout the entire campaign. There is precious little that we know now that we didn’t know a month ago. Their decision to pretend it was all skewed led to what? They lost the White House (in a race that was surely theirs for the taking). They lost ground in the Senate. Thanks to gerrymandering they still control the House, but their candidates nationwide received fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. Gay marriage initiatives passed in a couple of states. Gays and lesbians were elected to Congress.

All because the Republican Party privileged belief over knowledge.

Plenty of debate is already under way within the Republican Party as to what the results means and what might be done about it. Some conservative analysts are paying heed to the knowledge they have gained. Others, not so much.

And over at UnskewedPolls, well, see for yourself:

*sigh*

The GOP 2012 experience holds important lessons for us all as we move forward. The world in which we live, the nation in which we live, the neighborhoods and communities and cities in which we live are what they are, not what we wish them to be. For instance:

  • Some among us might wish that we lived in a uniformly white, Christian, heterosexual, nuclear family culture. We don’t. Whatever policies we seek to implement are doomed to failure unless we acknowledge our new multicultural reality.
  • Some of us believe that there is no such thing as climate disruption. There are Nate Silvers and Karl Roves in the natural science world, too. Our future and the future of generations not yet born depend on whether we’re smart enough to know to which of them we need to listen.
  • Many of us believe that cutting taxes on our wealthiest citizens creates opportunity and shared prosperity for everyone. All data on the subject shows this to be pure ideology – the precise opposite is true and the refusal to pay attention to the basic facts of economic history have grave implications for us all.
  • Dollar for dollar, the US pays three times more for health care than any other industrialized nation and by any measure we generate significantly worse outcomes. You might believe that only those who can pay outrageous prices deserve to be healthy, but the actual number of people who agree with you is diminishing rapidly.
  • The president was born in Hawai’i. If you insist that all proof is forged (it has to be, because it doesn’t conform with your beliefs), you will find that you’re damaging the credibility of other positions you hold. Also, people won’t sit next to you on the bus.
  • We are not a theocracy. A growing majority of voters are rejecting candidates whose views on how America should be governed more resemble the 1st century than the 21st. The coalition includes every facet of the electorate, but is especially pronounced among segments that are increasing in numbers.

The things are not beliefs, they are facts supported by every scrap of credible evidence that we have. The existence of facts doesn’t automatically suggest what the best policies might look like, but the refusal to acknowledge them assures disaster.

All of us – Republican, Democrat, Independent, Libertarian, Green and none of the above – would do well to learn from the GOP’s hard 2012 lesson.

The God Test

Suppose the following:

  • Later today, an organization dedicated to studying science and religion announces it has devised a “God Test.” This process will conclusively reveal whether or not there is a god (or gods). Further, it will discern the nature of god, if one (or more) exists. Does it desire/require obeisance/worship? Of what specific sort? Or is it a distant superior being that doesn’t really concern itself with humans and human affairs?
  • Global religious, political, social, academic and scientific leaders review this test and universally agree that yes, it will in fact do exactly what its developers claim. Despite their many differences, they all agree that once the God Test is run, we will all know, without ambiguity, what there is to know about god. Continue reading The God Test

North Carolina’s Amendment One and America’s youth: more on winning the battle and losing the war

Rachel Held Evans nails it:

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

My generation is tired of the culture wars.  Continue reading North Carolina’s Amendment One and America’s youth: more on winning the battle and losing the war

Can we be a little more careful how we abuse the word “science”?

Every once in awhile we will, for a variety of reasons, pick out a word that has positive connotations and proceed to flog that motherfucker to death. Like “engineer.” Engineer is a word with a meaning. From the Oxford:

Pronunciation:/ɛndʒɪˈnɪə/
noun

  1. person who designs, builds, or maintains engines, machines, or structures. – a person qualified in a branch of engineering, especially as a professional: an aeronautical engineer Continue reading Can we be a little more careful how we abuse the word “science”?

Imagine there’s no boycotts: that sounds like Communism to me

Following up on yesterday’s post about how unfair it is when progressives fight fire with fire

One of the architects of the modern conservative boycott movement back in the day was the now-deceased Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the “Moral Majority.” His strategy was simple. Identify those television and radio stations whose programming “promoted” a “liberal agenda” or “secular humanist” values, then leverage the purchasing power of the congregation to bully offenders into changing their programming. Sadly, this brand of thuggery (remember, this is generally the same crowd screeching right now about how “liberals” are “censoring” the “free speech rights” of the richest, most successful, most widely heard man in political talk radio) proved effective enough that it has now become a go-to weapon in the arsenals of interest groups across the partisan spectrum. Continue reading Imagine there’s no boycotts: that sounds like Communism to me

Sunday Video Roundup: a 9/11 special

Today, if we choose to listen, we’ll hear a great deal about America, about the last decade, about the lessons we’ve learned. Football will be played. Flags will be waved. Tears will be shed.

And tomorrow we’ll be exactly what we were yesterday, only moreso. Maybe today is a bad time for critiques. Or maybe it’s the perfect time. Hard to say. But if you find a few minutes today and need a breather, here are some innocent distractions for you.

First, it’s true – we’re all living in Amerika.

Continue reading Sunday Video Roundup: a 9/11 special

SportSunday: an avowed hater explains why maybe, just maybe, Tim Tebow should be the starter for the Denver Broncos

I think my feelings about Tim Tebow – the man and the quarterback – are well established by now. It may therefore come as a surprise to hear me say this. But I believe the Denver Broncos should make #15 their starting quarterback for the 2011-12 season and should commit to sticking with him, no matter what happens. Here’s my reasoning.

Let’s begin with an assumption: it is the goal of an NFL franchise to win the Super Bowl. As quickly and frequently as possible. I think most of us who aren’t Mike Brown can agree on that. Given this assumption, the Doncs’ brain trust of John Elway, John Fox and Brian Xanders have a task that revolves around a lone consideration: How soon can they plausibly expect to compete for a title? Continue reading SportSunday: an avowed hater explains why maybe, just maybe, Tim Tebow should be the starter for the Denver Broncos

The Colorado Crusading Rockies: why is the club’s religious mandate such a huge secret in its own hometown?

Here in a few weeks my company is taking all the employees to a Colorado Rockies game. All of us except me, that is – I’ll be begging off for reasons that I feel like I’ve hashed through a million times. I will no doubt be afforded several more chances to explain why I refuse to patronize the Rox as the big day approaches.

Short version: the Colorado Rockies are an evangelical Christian organization that, if I take them at their word, appear to discriminate (as a fundamental operating philosophy that I can only assume includes personnel decisions, both on-field and in the front office) on the basis of religion. I first wrote about the story shortly after it broke in an August 2006 Lullaby Pit piece on Who Would Jesus Play For? Continue reading The Colorado Crusading Rockies: why is the club’s religious mandate such a huge secret in its own hometown?