19 July 2016

The "Netflixing" of American Politics

One of the criticisms commonly made towards US politics is the two-party system and how some voters complain that they don't have a candidate that lines up closely with their values.

This is what I call the "Netflixing" of American politics.

Netflix along with Hulu, Amazon Prime Video, and the hundreds of cable TV channels have provided the entertainment consumer with an incredible diversity of choices.  One can find entertainment choices that closely align with one's desires.

This is great for both the artists creating television drama and for the viewer.

But it may be creating unrealistic expectations in other areas of life where the outcome may be choices that do not align closely with one's desires -- like politics in general and the 2016 Presidential Election in particular.

The goal in any political campaign is to get a majority of the voters to support the campaign's candidate.  This means that any governing coalition will have to be a broad-based mix of constituencies.  Some members of this coalition may not be supporting their first choice for President.

Unlike the "Netflix" model where everyone get's their first choice, forming a broad majority coalition is closer to the television model of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the 1960's non-Netflix TV model, there are very few choices and they are not designed to meet an individual viewer's desires.  Instead, the choices are designed to meet the needs of a broad majority coalition.

And this sounds very similar to the approach traditionally used to run as a major party Presidential candidate.

11 November 2014

Some time-saving tips for internet discussions

There are many catchphrases and slang words that one hears on the internet and in the wider use outside the internet.  Some of these slang words are creative and lead to improved communication. 

These words listed below are used by many to marginalize the concerns of other (even if that isn't the intention of all users of these terms).

Of course, there are times when a person quotes others using one of these marginalizing words to illustrate what another is saying and to respond to their arguments (I'm not criticizing that type of usage here).

Feminazi -- If you use the word "feminazi" as a dismissive way to label your opponents in a discussion about gender, sexism, and feminism, it's very reasonable to assume that you're not engaging in the argument as an honest debater.

Homosexual or Gay Agenda -- If you use the phrase "homosexual agenda" or "gay agenda" as a dismissive way to describe your opponent's views in a discussion about sexual orientation, it's very reasonable to assume that you're not engaging in the argument as an honest debater.

Social Justice Warrior or SJW -- If you use the phrase "social justice warrior"or "SJW" as a dismissive way to label your opponents in a discussion about oppression (including non-personal systemic oppression) and intersectionality, it's very reasonable to assume that you're not engaging in the argument as an honest debater.

The "tl;dr" version -- if you want your arguments taken seriously, don't use terms that your opponents view as name-calling. And now we can return to our interactions on the internet.

16 September 2014

James Barrett — Unitarian Universalist Reproductive Justice Activist

Note - this is the text for a short talk that I gave on 31 August 2014 as part of a worship service for All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.  The podcast audio recording for this can be found here (my portion starts at the 9:10 mark).

Who has heard of Rev James Reeb?

He’s a famous Unitarian Universalist who made the ultimate sacrifice – giving his life supporting racial justice in 1965.

Now, who has heard of James Barrett, Lt Colonel (US Air Force – retired)?

Jim Barrett is less well-known but he could be considered our “James Reeb of reproductive justice.”

13 May 2014

A Response to "Public Education and Intelligent Design" (Part 1)

On 30 April 2014, Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Dan Harper mentioned a paper by philosopher Thomas Nagel on his blog -- "A possible case for teaching intelligent design" is the title of the blog post and the Nagel's paper is "Public Education and Intelligent Design."

In the opening section of his paper, Thomas Nagel makes the following observation about the assumptions used in the sciences and how they may conflict with religious assumptions:
But the conflicts aired in this trial [Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District]—over the status of evolutionary theory, the arguments for intelligent design, and the nature of science—reveal an intellectually unhealthy situation. The political urge to defend science education against the threats of religious orthodoxy, understandable though it is, has resulted in a counterorthodoxy, supported by bad arguments, and a tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory. Skeptics about the theory are seen as so dangerous, and so disreputably motivated, that they must be denied any shred of legitimate interest. Most importantly, the campaign of the scientific establishment to rule out intelligent design as beyond discussion because it is not science results in the avoidance of significant questions about the relation between evolutionary theory and religious belief, questions that must be faced in order to understand the theory and evaluate the scientific evidence for it.
I'm not sure what Nagel means by a "counterorthodoxy" and "tendency to overstate the legitimate scientific claims of evolutionary theory."

Yes, it's true that many scientists are philosophical naturalists (who hold that only natural processes operate in the universe and there is no evidence for supernatural forces of any sort).

A commonly cited statistic is that 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences believe in a personal god (72.2% expressed disbelief and another 20.8% were agnostic concerning the existence of a personal god who answers prayer -- cited from Wikipedia).

But even scientists who hold supernatural beliefs (theism - a belief in a personal god) employ methodological naturalism when doing science even if they are not philosophical naturalists.

In writing the Kitzmiller decision, Judge Jones made the following comments about methodological naturalism and its role in the sciences:
"Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena ... While supernatural explanations may be important and have merit, they are not part of science." Methodological naturalism is thus "a self-imposed convention of science." It is a "ground rule" that "requires scientists to seek explanations in the world around us based upon what we can observe, test, replicate, and verify." (cited from Wikipedia)
At first glance, this quote from the judge's decision appears to support Nagel's opening statement in his paper.

But that really isn't the case.

For almost 500 years, we have been successfully used methodological naturalism in our exploration of the world because it works.

It's not an a priori assumption.

It's an assumption with a proven track record -- a pragmatic assumption.

Greta Christina mentions this on her blog:
When you look at the history of what we know about the world, you see a very noticeable pattern. Natural explanations of things have been replacing supernatural explanations of them. Like a steamroller. 
Why the sun rises and sets. Where thunder and lightning come from. Why people get sick. Why people look like their parents. How the complexity of life came into being. I could go on and on. 
All of these things were once explained by religion. But as we understood the world better, and learned to observe it more carefully, the religious explanations were replaced by physical cause and effect. Consistently. Thoroughly. Like a steamroller. The number of times that a supernatural or religious explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a natural explanation? 
Thousands upon thousands upon thousands. 
Now. The number of times that a natural explanation of a phenomenon has been replaced by a supernatural or religious one? The number of times humankind has said, “We used to think (X) was caused by physical cause and effect, but now we understand that it’s actually caused by God, or spirits, or demons, or the soul”? 
Exactly zero.
Now ... there may be theological implications for some regarding methodological naturalism as it is currently used in the sciences.

And there may be theological implications in some conceptual frameworks currently used the sciences.

We now view lighting being caused by electrostatic discharge in clouds.  We don't consider Thor to be useful here.

We now view HIV and AIDS being caused by a virus.  We don't find the "AIDS is God's curse" to be useful.

Our understanding of natural selection and evolution is that both are "material processes, blind, mindless, and purposeless" -- a process that happens without forethought or goal.  Google "Luria–Delbrück experiment" -- we've known that this is a blind and purposeless process for many years.

But one might say this is not consistent with my theology.

The rejection of Thor causing lighting also clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of HIV/AIDS being a divine curse clashes with some theological opinions.

The rejection of intelligent design clashes with some theological opinions.

If we are being reasonable in the first two cases ignoring theological concerns (lighting, HIV/AIDS), we may be reasonable ignoring theology in the third case (evolution and natural selection).

03 April 2014

Conservatism Limiting the Growth of Atheism??

I have my doubts about small government libertarian conservative politics if we want to grow atheism and free-thought in the United States. Recently, the questions surrounding atheism and conservative politics came up in connection to American Atheists President David Silverman attending this years CPAC Conference ("David Silverman: CPAC is crawling with closet atheists").

I’ve read Phil Zuckerman’s Society Without God and I’m currently reading David Niose’s Nonbeliever Nation. Both books make a similar point about growing atheism and secularism in a democracy. Secular atheist-friendly societies appear arise naturally in situations where there is a strong social safety net. Niose (page 197) makes the following observation about this correlation in his book:
“As modern developed countries learn to educate, provide health care, and ensure the general welfare of a diverse population, there is less reliance on religious community and charity. This partly explains why conservative religion so often abhors the modern social welfare state, where the public sector fills many roles once served by religion. It’s little wonder that secularity is most prominent in the social democracies of Europe, where the notion of the public sector serving many essential community needs is widely accepted.”
For a small-government conservative or libertarian conservative atheist, this may seem frustrating. After all, conservative politics may have the unintended side-effect of keeping religion alive and limiting the growth of atheism.

[Cross-posted from philosophicalpenguins.wordpress.com]

25 September 2012

Online Academic Theological Library

Here's a a free online resource courtesy of the World Council of Churches and globethics.net:
Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism
Online theological resources for education and ecumenical dialogue

The Global Digital Library on Theology and Ecumenism (GlobeTheoLib) is a multi-lingual global digital library on theology and ecumenism that offers access to more than 500,000 texts, documents and other academic resources.

09 February 2012

Why E. J. Dionne Is Wrong on Contraceptives and Health Care Reform

The Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne is frequently cited as a progressive Catholic who condemns the recent Obama Administration announcement to require all employers (except exclusively religious bodies) to offer contraceptive insurance coverage as part of comprehensive preventive care. Mr. Dionne has claimed this health care decision infringes on religious liberty.

I've already written about why this is a medically and scientifically smart decision.

But Mr. Dionne's thinking is inconsistent. I think this excerpt from "Balancing Faith and Contraceptives" by Scott Lemieux shows where Mr. Dionne's logic is faulty:
Elsewhere, Dionne effectively refutes his own argument by noting, "While the Catholic Church formally opposes contraception, this teaching is widely ignored by the faithful." For the same reasons Kevin Drum cites at Mother Jones, if opposition to contraception represented a widely practiced tenet of the Roman Catholic faith, I believe that the government's interest in securing gender equity with a reasonable, generally applicable law should prevail, but I can understand seeing this as a difficult question. But forgoing contraception is not central to the faith of most practicing Roman Catholics. There’s not a genuine clash between religious freedom and pressing government interests here; rather, a small minority of religious leaders are seeking a special exemption that burdens women in the name of principles the overwhelming majority of their followers reject. The Obama administration's balancing of the interests here was perfectly appropriate and is better than either alternative Dionne proposes.
In other words, it's not a matter of "religious freedom" for the Catholic Bishops to try and claim an authority over non-Catholic employees and a secular government that they no longer exercise over their own flock.

"Special Rights" for Religions When They Operate Secular Businesses? No!!

First, I will say that religious institutions (e.g. churches, mosques, synagogues, other places of worship, seminaries, etc) do have exemptions from the laws that secular non-profits don't have.

Religious organizations can discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring and firing. In areas where sexual orientation non-discrimination laws are present, religious organizations are exempt from following these laws as well. They can discriminate on the basis of gender in their hiring. In other words, they get to do a lot of things that would be illegal and wrong if a secular business were to do them.

But this exemption from secular law should not apply when a religious body operates a secular business like a hospital or a school.

These secular businesses employ members of all faith traditions and even those who are non-believers. The same is true for their clientele - they may belong to other faiths or have no faith at all.

Basically, we're talking about hospitals and colleges that have religious decorations on the walls and statues in the lobby. These trappings should not give a hospital or school "special rights" to ignore laws that secular non-profit and secular for-profit corporations must follow.