Christianity and Paganism

Merry Christmas everyone! Tis the season for comparisons of Christianity to paganism. I’ve made it a regular ritual to watch Lutheran Satire on the matter:

For years I had accepted that Christianity had probably at least borrowed the date of Christmas from pagans. Turns out that’s not even true. Christians used some interesting math to determine Christ’s birthday, but it had nothing to do with paganism:

If the birth of Jesus was not celebrated by the early church, it also was because there was not a consensus as to when it had occurred. Writing shortly after the assassination of Commodus on December 31, AD 192, Clement of Alexandria provides the earliest documented dates for the Nativity. One hundred ninety-four years, one month, and thirteen days, he says, had elapsed since then, which corresponds to a birth date of November 18 or, if the forty-nine intercalary days missing from the Alexandrian calendar are added, January 6. Moreover, “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day” (Stromata, I.21), including dates in April and May, as well as another day in January.

Hippolytus, a younger contemporary of Clement, does state that the Nativity had occurred on December 25 (Commentary on Daniel, IV.23.3). Although the statement may be a later interpolation, he reiterated several decades later (in AD 235) that Jesus was born nine months after the anniversary of the creation of the world, which Hippolytus believed to have been on March 25 (Chronicon, 686ff). The Nativity then would be on December 25.

In about AD 221, Julius Africanus wrote the Chronographiae, the first Christian chronology. Although he does not specifically mention the Nativity, he did believe that Jesus had been conceived on March 25. In AD 243, Cyprian is the first Christian writer to associate the birth of Jesus with the Sun: “O! The splendid and divine Providence of the Lord, that on that day, even at the very day, on which the Sun was made [March 28], Christ should be born” (De Pascha Computus, XIX). Creation itself was on March 25, the vernal equinox, and the Sun created on the fourth day, March 28. It followed, then, that the “Sun of righteousness,” in Malachi’s phrase, would be born on the same day.

And pagans might have even revived their winter solstice celebrations in response to Christianity:

Hijmans presents a critical re-evaluation of the History of Religions hypothesis and the notion that the early church incorporated the feast of Sol Invictus into its own liturgy, positing instead that the pagan festival was “‘rediscovered’ by pagan authorities in response to the appropriation of the winter solstice by Christianity.” The festival of Sol Invictus, in other words, may not have been identified with December 25 until after the first Christmas had been celebrated on that day. Nor, he argues, should the cosmic symbolism attached to the winter solstice, which may have led the church to adopt December 25 for its feast of the Nativity, be confused with a cult of Sol on that date.

The winter solstice, when the light of day finally begins to lengthen, would have a natural association with the “Sun of righteousness.” Indeed, Tertullian writes that “It is therefore due to a want of heed and reflection that many are offended by the mere fact that heresies have so much power. How much would they have if they did not exist?” (On the Prescription of Heretics, I). Here, the paradox is that the absence of heresy would confound the predictions of Scripture, as when one is admonished to “beware of false prophets” (Matthew 7:15).

Some pagan influences would creep in later (such as Yule), but by that time the Christian foundations of Christmas were well set, and pagan elements were a peripheral cultural attachment, not a fundamental aspect of the celebration.

Scientific Skepticism

Turns out Bill Nye isn’t entirely fond of GMOs:

I stand by my assertions that although you can know what happens to any individual species that you modify, you cannot be certain what will happen to the ecosystem.

Also, we have a strange situation where we have malnourished fat people. It’s not that we need more food. It’s that we need to manage our food system better.

So when corporations seek government funding for genetic modification of food sources, I stroke my chin.

Yet even though I’m in favor of GMOs, I think he’s perfectly fine signalling caution about the difficulty of studying cause/effect within whole ecosystems and potential political/corporate interests in science. As scientists and engineers, we should always be questioning how our theories and models can be inaccurate or inadequate, and as human beings, we should always be wary of outside influences on science. Yet by Bill Nye’s own standards, he’s a denier. There are no studies to indicate environmental problems with GMOs, and if the amount of corporate and political influence in GMOs worries Bill Nye, he should be equally suspicious about climate change.

As a practicing engineer, this is what drives me bonkers about many supposed science advocates who brook no dissent on their chosen topics. You either find out that they have little known reservations about other topics where the science is “clear” (like Bill Nye), or they have zero reservations or skepticism about anything scientific consensus says, in which case they are professing the most anti-scientific belief possible (like Neil DeGrasse Tyson). The heart of science is realizing that all theories are provisional, that at best our theories can be well attested, never absolutely proven true. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, believed that:

Scientific theories…are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather, all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical—we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely (provisionally) confirm or (conclusively) refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation. Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining, unfalsified theories. Hence Popper’s emphasis on the importance of the critical spirit to science—for him critical thinking is the very essence of rationality. For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one, in the sense of possessing the highest level of explanatory force and predictive power.

I suppose people will now want to know what I believe about climate change, or conversely, if I say nothing people will probably start assuming. I know the earth is warming up. That’s not very hard to measure. I know that humans contribute to that warming. Again, not very hard to measure nor controversial. I do not know, though, to what extent humans contribute to the warming, nor to what extent reducing our greenhouse gas output a reasonable amount would actually slow this warming. That’s where the science of the matter gets difficult, because now we’re dealing with a whole ecosystem (like with GMOs), and sussing out cause and effect in a whole ecosystem is tricky. So currently, I have no strong opinion one way or the other. We could be contributing greatly to warming. Or our input could be modest. Modeling these effects and predicting warming rates is finicky to say the least.

Then when we get to the politics and economics of global warming, the situation is even messier. Will carbon taxes actually reduce greenhouse gas output in any significant amount worth the economic costs? Can we even reduce our greenhouse gas output any appreciable amount that won’t send the American public into shock? This is where global warming gets beyond my expertise.

So generally I just support measures that benefit us anyways with the side effect of combating greenhouse gas output. I support monitoring and regulating pollution output. I support continuing research into alternative energy sources, which isn’t just solar and wind for the record. We have geothermal, hydroelectric, wave energy, biomass, and more. I realize many of these methods are limited in their production capacity, location, and reliability, but they are capable of producing power amounts that aren’t insignificant.

More importantly, I support nuclear power, which has none of the above limitations. Now this is where all the talk about supporting science gets really odd. Nuclear power plants have a very good safety record (despite what the news says), and engineers are constantly working to make them better. On top of that, add the context of nuclear safety versus other sources of power. On top of that, add some perspective on radiation amounts (yes I cited XKCD). On top of that, add the oft cited dire effects of global warming. In that context, how can opposing nuclear power be anything short of anti-scientific and ridiculous, using the vocabulary abundant in discussion of global warming? And yet, people do it. Many climate scientists are jumping on board the nuclear train, but there’s still plenty of opposition. People proclaim the inviolability of scientific consensus in one context and then turn around to challenge it in a different context.

So, what general principles can we derive from this long-winded analysis? I would say people need to be able to simultaneously hold two seemingly contradictory concepts in their mind: Science is a quest for understanding the natural world, and science can never finally prove anything. With that knowledge, we should respect the explanatory power of science but also realize that science relies fundamentally on a critical spirit. We cannot crush dissent, nor should set ourselves up as arbiters of what constitutes “valid” dissent, which is really just crushing dissent by a different name. Rather, we must continually attempt to falsify our own theories, and if they survive the continuing ordeals, we can begin to call them well attested. But even then we must not close our minds, even as we defend theories we believe to be well attested. Newtonian physics reigned 300 years before general relativity showed up.

How do these principles look practically? I would say they manifest themselves in simultaneously laying down what we know while maintaining a spirit of humility. For example, I have defended evolution numerous times contra creationism. I don’t resort to telling people they’re scientifically illiterate (even though people who try to tell a chemical engineer how the 2nd law of thermodynamics “actually” works might qualify). I don’t demand they accept the consensus of science over their doubts (which would be horrifically anti-scientific). Rather, I just tell them what I know and demonstrate the explanatory power of evolution. You’d be surprised how well that works. Even if people don’t change their minds right then and there, it gets their minds thinking, and it allays their fears that I have an ulterior motive for defending evolution.

I believe these principles would serve science advocacy well. There is no contradiction between lacking absolute certainty and seeking scientific knowledge. In fact, the two work together. By realizing our own limitations, we can continually revise our understanding to better reflect what we see and what we know of the natural world. To say that we have finally and definitively figured out the answers ends the scientific quest and permanently extinguishes the scientific spirit.

Pointless Existence

I’ll just start with my thesis: the only rational and consistent outlook of materialist atheism (hereafter referred to simply as atheism for brevity) is that life is pointless. Believing otherwise inevitably involves some degree of delusion or distraction.

I suppose them fightin’ words need support. First, I would point out the following. I will die. You will die. Everyone we know, helped, or hurt will die. Everything we ever accomplished will disappear. The earth will cease to support life. The sun will go supernova. And eventually the ultimate heat death of the universe will occur, beyond which nothing will ever occur again (at least in this universe, but let’s leave out multiverse theory). In that context, how can anything matter?

The most common response I hear is that you create your own purpose, sometimes followed by quotes from existentialist philosophers. Within an atheistic point of view, that sounds like the equivalent of saying ‘I will believe in stories that give my life purpose or distract me from my inevitable and permanent non-existence,’ which should appear disturbingly similar to the purpose of religion as understood by many atheists.

Furthermore, saying you create your own purpose seems like saying that Sisyphus would’ve had a purpose if the gods had attached a rolling-counter to his boulder to keep him occupied. SMBC wrote a comic to that effect.

meaning of life 2

Sisyphus could have attached any personal purpose imaginable to his existence, and we would still say his existence is pointless because it has no final point or purpose. The boulder goes up the hill, and then it goes down, leaving Sisyphus with a net nothing. We expect to meet the same fate under an atheistic point of view. We spend our existence pushing our boulder of accomplishments up the hill of life, and whether in a few decades, a century, or a millennium, that boulder will come right back to where it started. We will be forgotten, and everything and everyone we influenced will cease to exist. We ultimately did it all for no objective purpose.

The next response is usually that my opinion doesn’t really count since I’m not an atheist. I would bring up that I was an atheist, and this question mattered to me, but I think it’s more effective to point that this isn’t my opinion originally. It’s the opinion of many atheist and agnostic thinkers throughout history. For example, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes about Albert Camus that:

Camus sees this question of suicide as a natural response to an underlying premise, namely that life is absurd in a variety of ways. As we have seen, both the presence and absence of life (i.e., death) give rise to the condition: it is absurd to continually seek meaning in life when there is none, and it is absurd to hope for some form of continued existence after death given that the latter results in our extinction.

Leo Tolstoy searched for meaning in life and ultimately found none within a material framework, bringing him to the edge of suicide before his conversion to Christianity. He wrote in his book Confessions:

I sought in all the sciences, but far from finding what I wanted, became convinced that all who like myself had sought in knowledge for the meaning of life had found nothing. And not only had they found nothing, but they had plainly acknowledged that the very thing which made me despair–namely the senselessness of life–is the one indubitable thing man can know.

My question–that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide–was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life?”

Differently expressed, the question is: “Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”

Somerset Maugham, a famous 20th century writer and agnostic, stated:

If one puts aside the existence of God and the survival after life as too doubtful . . . one has to make up one’s mind as to the use of life. If death ends it all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what I am here for, and how in these circumstances I must conduct myself. Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and life has no meaning.

Personally, my favorite answer comes from Hume. In the face of life’s inevitable end, Hume recommended the very modern solution of distraction:

Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? … I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, environed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.

Most fortunately it happens, that since Reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, Nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends. And when, after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.

Which I would wager is the most common answer today. I suppose every person feels like they live in an age of unparalleled distraction, but I truly believe that the amount of distraction available to human beings today is greater than almost any period of history. In that context, nobody really needs to bother with whether life has meaning or not.

meaning of life

A brave new world indeed.

Mostly, I write this post as a call for consistency and rationality. I came of age in an atheism that espoused facing the truth, no matter how bleak. Here is the truth. Under an atheistic point of view, life has no objective meaning, so the the options are making up your own (unprovable) story, finding sufficient distraction until you die, or nihilism. Or as my friend Reece succinctly put it:

In my mind, there are really only two kinds of atheists.  There is make-believe pretend atheism, and then there is nihilism.

Ultimately, we won’t know until we’re dead who is right. However, we can know in this life who lives consistently with what they believe.

Why I Like Oaths

Solemn oaths today seem to strike people as some combination of quaint, naive, and constricting. They’re the kind of thing for a person long on overactive imagination and short on worldly experience. But personally, I like them very much. I find them to be an excellent vehicle for holding myself accountable. I also like them because I think there’s something inherently weaselly about human nature. If we don’t swear to something, we’re more likely later to revise our personal narrative to fit what we ended up doing. True, one can always re-interpret the oath, but that act should be, to a a person at very least trying to be honest, a sign he or she has gone astray.

Most importantly, I like that a good oath has specific points you can either uphold or fail to uphold, and again to anyone at least trying to uphold their word, success or failure will be apparent. For example, I’m very fond of the oath of the Knights of the Round Table from Le Morte D’Arthur (updated from Middle English to modern English):

This is the oath of a Knight of King Arth[u]r’s Round Table and should be for all of us to take to heart. I will develop my life for the greater good. I will place character above riches, and concern for others above personal wealth, I will never boast, but cherish humility instead, I will speak the truth at all times, and forever keep my word, I will defend those who cannot defend themselves, I will honor and respect women, and refute sexism in all its guises, I will uphold justice by being fair to all, I will be faithful in love and loyal in friendship, I will abhor scandals and gossip-neither partake nor delight in them, I will be generous to the poor and to those who need help, I will forgive when asked, that my own mistakes will be forgiven, I will live my life with courtesy and honor from this day forward.

So I can ask myself: Have I developed my life for the greater good, or have I spent my time playing video games and drinking beer? Have I placed character and charity above riches, or have I sought wealth before character and concern for others?  Do I say or think unfair things about women? Do I boast? Do I gossip? Do I forgive?

That’s a really hard list. Beer and distraction are way more fun than personal improvement. Money buys me beer and makes me feel comfortable. Sexist thoughts and comments about women are tempting. And it feels like a week let alone a day doesn’t go by without some temptation to boasting or gossiping. But I really, really like trying to hold myself to this standard because it makes me aware of the things I do that might not be right or just and would go unnoticed by myself if I didn’t actively pay attention.

The Beatitudes aren’t really an oath, but they’re similarly structured in a way that you can evaluate yourself:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you [falsely] because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. Thus they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

The wording isn’t entirely concrete, but I think it’s clear enough. Have I been poor in spirit? Meek? Merciful? Clean of heart? Have I sought peace and reconciliation wherever possible? These are prime metrics by which I may judge whether I have walked rightly or not if I have the integrity to evaluate myself impartially, and again, they ask a great amount. Being meek and clean of heart is a continuous struggle. Peace and reconciliation are often far from our thoughts.

Lastly, I like oaths because they are a commitment to faithfulness and call to action. I took an oath upon my confirmation in the Catholic Church at 23:

For “by the sacrament of Confirmation, [the baptized] are more perfectly bound to the Church and are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit. Hence they are, as true witnesses of Christ, more strictly obliged to spread and defend the faith by word and deed.”

I have given God my word that I will uphold and defend the faith by word and deed. If I go back on that word, I will know that I am a liar and traitor for all of my life.

betrayers and mutineers

And that fact applies to everything I do. When I fail to live as Christ taught, in the Beatitudes and elsewhere, I fail to live by my oath. I bring disrepute upon the Church and the greater Christian communion. The only answer then, if I am to be faithful to my word, is to continually bring my life closer to the life of Him whom I have sworn to serve.

Cleansing the Temple

Note: Obnoxious amounts of Christianity ahead. You’ve been warned!

I’ve been contemplating Jesus’ cleansing of the temple for a few weeks now. I like Saint John’s account the most:

13 The Passover of the Jews was at hand, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers at their business. 15 And making a whip of cords, he drove them all, with the sheep and oxen, out of the temple; and he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. 16 And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; you shall not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” 17 His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for thy house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then said to him, “What sign have you to show us for doing this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” 20 The Jews then said, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 21 But he spoke of the temple of his body.

I believe the passage has literal meaning. Jesus literally drove people out of the temple because they had turned God’s house into a house of trade. We should avoid the same temptation to have our focus at church become socialization or business rather than love of God. Similarly, we should have zeal for upholding God’s truth in the universal Christian community where immoral teaching and heresy often appear.

Yet more and more the spiritual meaning of the passage has been speaking to me. I think we often look to the external temple (the church) with zeal for rightness, but how often do we look to our inner temple? I look in myself, and I see pride, greed, fear, jealousy, unfaithfulness, falsity, and every manner of unrighteous emotion. I recall the words of Matthew:

13 [Jesus] said to them, “It is written,

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer’;
    but you are making it a den of robbers.”

I then ask myself how a man who wants to have zeal for the external house of the Lord can do anything while his internal house remains in disarray. It is not possible. At best, it will Pharisaical pride at stamping out exterior wrongs all while ignoring blatant interior wrongs. Jesus had no patience for exactly one group, and that group was the Pharisees. So let’s not be them.

Rather, we must ask Jesus to cleanse our inner temple. Perhaps something like, “Jesus, bind up a whip of cords, overturn my unrighteousness, make this temple into a house of God.” I’m under no impression I will be liberated from the brokenness of human nature. But I want to ask God to help me. Like Joan of Arc answered during her trial:

[Joan is asked : Do you know if you are in the grace of God?]

“If I am not, may God place me there; if I am, may God so keep me.”

Only from this relationship with God should we even start thinking about external concerns of church doctrine or moral issues. Only then can truth flow from love of God and neighbor rather than the desire to see others in the wrong or doctrinal obsession. I still feel those temptations pull at my heart, goading me to put others in the wrong so that I may feel right. Even when we know these feelings are wrong, we are tempted next to meet them half-heartedly because we view experiencing these emotions as inevitable. No! Bind up a whip of cords, drive them from the temple of the Lord. They have no place here.

Which brings me to my last idea. A natural stage in Christian life is restraining yourself from something you want because you know it’s wrong or unhelpful. However, we cannot persist here. If we do, we will spend our whole lives feeling like we’ve simply been holding ourselves back to serve the Lord. Now, don’t get me wrong, that’s good. “Take up your cross and follow me.” However, this is not the fullness of life that Jesus intends. He wants us to rejoice in our life with Him, going forth with joy. So, let us pray to Jesus, saying, “Lord, make my heart like your heart, my desires as your desires, my mission into your mission.” In this way we may grow closer to the Lord, rejoicing in goodness and love rather than feeling like we’re just holding back evil day by day.

As a final note, don’t by any means construe my ideas as anything more than the thoughts of a single Christian. I am not a priest, I am not a trained theologian, and I’m not even 30. If these internal reflections are helpful, I’m glad. If they aren’t, ignore them freely.

Suffering, Evil, and God


I’m not going to answer how they can co-exist. Sorry to disappoint.

Actually, my answer is that I cannot completely know why suffering and evil exist. There’s plenty of good answers that I believe cover areas of evil, such as how evil can result from human moral freedom, suffering can bring about greater good, etc. but sooner or later we reach what we would call pointless suffering–suffering that seems to serve no purpose.

But today it dawned on me that labeling suffering as pointless is presuming knowledge a human being cannot possibly possess if God does indeed exist. I just finished reading the book of Job, and the deeper I grow in faith, the more God’s answer seems completely justified:

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
    and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

Truly, who can fathom why God made the world the way he did? Can we see all ends and declare with utmost certainty that we know suffering is pointless, that God had no point in allowing evil? Logic is a powerful human engine, but even logic has its limitations. Can any one human being presume to see all ends and render judgment on whether suffering has a purpose or not?

What’s more, if we presume God exists, I would argue instead that no suffering can be pointless by definition. Any suffering we endure can be offered to the glory of God. I still don’t why suffering exists, but I now know what I can do with any and all suffering that comes my way. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

My personal trials have also taught me the value of unmerited suffering. As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course. Recognizing the necessity for suffering I have tried to make of it a virtue. If only to save myself from bitterness, I have attempted to see my personal ordeals as an opportunity to transform myself and heal the people involved in the tragic situation which now obtains. I have lived these last few years with the conviction that unearned suffering is redemptive.

It’s not an easy philosophy to carry out by any means. But I don’t think rejecting God makes the situation any better. In fact, I’d argue it makes it worse. Saying God doesn’t exist in response to the problem of evil doesn’t solve the riddle to why we suffer. It simply removes any right or basis we could possibly have for questioning why we suffer. Nature certainly doesn’t care one way or the other if we suffer and die.

The above may seem like an argument from ignorance. I don’t know, so I give up. Actually, I think it strikes a middle way: I don’t know, so I won’t presume to know in order to answer why we suffer. I think there’s much value in knowing what you cannot know, and if God exists, I definitely do not have the knowledge, either empirical or theoretical, to see all ends and explain why all suffering has ever happened and will continue to happen. But that ignorance doesn’t really bother me. As an atheist I said we shouldn’t invent answers where we simply don’t know, and I will continue to assert the same as a Christian. Better to say I don’t know than invent a false answer that presumes knowledge beyond my capacity.

As a final thought, I remember talking to a deacon who had given funerals for children. Parents often ask why their child died, and the deacon always answers, “I don’t know.” He said it’s the best answer because, truly, he doesn’t know, and trying to discern or invent an answer to a child’s death will do nothing but hurt already bereaved parents. I think that’s a good approach. There’s a real temptation for Christians to have an answer for all suffering because God is so often called to account. We should resist that temptation. Instead, let us weep with those who weep and remember that even the very wise, as Gandalf famously said, cannot see all ends.

2014 Republicans: Not So Old, Not So White, Not So Male

But don’t expect to hear much from most media sources:

Among the winning candidates are the youngest female ever elected to office, the first black Republican woman elected to the House (also the first Haitian American to serve in Congress), the first female Senator from West Virginia and the first female Senator from Iowa. A Jewish Republican from New York defeated his opponent by 10 points and an openly gay Republican is in a neck-and-neck race to represent a California district. You have a markedly young incoming group of Senators, including 37-year-old Tom Cotton of Arkansas and 40-year-old Cory Gardner of Colorado. Sen. Tim Scott was elected the South’s first black Senator.

Lower turnout at midterm elections can explain some of the demographic shifts, but not everything:

Part of the Republican improvement can be traced to lower voter turnout, because younger Latinos and Asians simply don’t show up as much in non-presidential years. But black voter participation this year actually went up from the last midterm election, rising to 12 percent of the electorate, compared with 11 percent in 2010. The new GOP strength among non-black minorities was to some extent the product of aggressive outreach in minority communities by the Republican National Committee and various state parties. In Texas, GOP senator John Cornyn carried the Latino vote by a single percentage point, while Greg Abbott, who is married to a Latina, lost it by only ten points in the race for governor. Abbott carried the Asian-American vote 52 to 48 percent.

California Republicans surprised some observers in this election by mustering enough strength to block Democrats from winning a two-thirds supermajority in the State Senate and Assembly, thus giving their members in those bodies a voice in tax increases and budget matters. An analysis by KPCC Radio found that the accomplishment resulted partially from “the victories of two Republican candidates from Orange County — both women, both Asian American.”

Republicans still have much more to do, and presidential election years will be harder. Regardless, the future looks hopeful for building a coalition with all citizens of the United States. Onward and forward!

Edit: Moments after I wrote this article, my friend and co-editor Monica posted this article:

A headline on the Cut announces that the midterm election results were “Bad News for Women.” Under it, Ann Friedman argues that even though there were several “prominent victories” for Republican women this week—including combat veteran and hog castrator Joni Ernst in Iowa, black Mormon Mia Love in Utah, and youngest woman to ever be elected to Congress Elise Stefanik in New York—because they do not support abortion rights and are pro-gun, that means their wins are not a boon for women.

I’m not sure I agree. If you are against everything Joni Ernst or Mia Love stand for, then this election was bad for you, and the policies you care about, not bad for women. It should be obvious, but “women”—half the population—are not a uniform voting block with uniform ideas about what is best for them….

Population and Resources

The state of the earth’s resources and population has been a hot topic for a while now. The most common refrain is that we simply need fewer people. How that goal is accomplished can range from mild like family planning to inhuman like a one-child policy. Yet the unchallenged premise remains that reducing the amount of people is the main way to achieve this goal. I reject this premise. I contend that the main cause of resource crises on earth is how much people use, not how many people there are.

On this note, the BBC ran an article recently on the topic. The most relevant parts in my mind:

The picture is complicated by the fact that while the overall figures have been growing, the world’s per-capita fertility has been declining for several decades.

The impact on the environment has increased substantially, however, because of rising affluence and consumption rates.


As a result of this long-term impact, the world should focus on curbing consumption and designing ways to conserve species and ecosystems.

“Society’s efforts towards sustainability would be directed more productively towards reducing our impact as much as possible through technological and social innovation,” says Prof Bradshaw.

The BBC repeats the idea that less people forms part of the equation, and in light of my argument, people will often ask, “Can’t we do both?’ In theory, I agree that responsible resource usage goes hand-in-hand with family planning, but so long as people keep before their minds that they can just prevent people from existing, they develop very little desire to conserve resources. So by compromising we end up right back where we started, staking our future on the dangerous premise that we need to prevent people from existing in order to live life comfortably.

Furthermore, as the BBC mentions, even a catastrophic decline in population will do very little to arrest any resource problems so long as resource consumption remains the same as now or increases, without even considering the effect of extreme population decline on other areas such as economics and culture. Overall, I see a picture of resource management centered around population control that will at best be ineffective, at worst outright immoral, and very likely detrimental to society in the long run.

I also believe we are meant to be fruitful and multiply. I believe human life is inherently good. We can live with an increasing number of people on earth. What we cannot live with is a world where people use vastly more than they need. People will often point out how the development of China and India is putting strain on the world’s resources and how they need to use less, but if Americans continue to live well in excess of what we need, on what grounds can we possibly tell the rest of the world to use less? We must be the change we want to see, especially when we’re 4% of the world population and use 20% of the world’s resources.

I realize my vision is a bit pie-in-sky. However, I think more evidence is mounting that all the family planning in the world and even outright authoritarian population control will do nothing if we do not reduce our desire for objects. Then on the flip side, I believe if we do learn to desire less, more people will not create crises. A family of four wanting to live a luxurious American lifestyle will place more demand on resources than a family of eight living modestly.

Therefore, I believe we have two choices set before us. We can sacrifice objects, or we can sacrifice people. Which do we choose?

Finding the Right Naturalism in Science

You have probably all heard how religion is the enemy of science. Let me say something you may not have heard: Naturalism represents an equally dangerous foe for the scientific enterprise. How can that be, you ask? Science is a naturalistic enterprise, isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Science is what we call methodologically naturalist in that it “assum[es] naturalism in working methods, without necessarily considering naturalism as an absolute truth with philosophical entailments.” Hence the old recognition that science cannot answer all of our questions as human beings, nor did it ever intend to. However, there are those who take naturalism beyond the realm of science and into the metaphysical, stating that nothing exists beyond our physical world. They are known unsurprisingly as metaphysical naturalists.

Since science is methodologically naturalist, it has become natural (pun intended) for many metaphysical naturalists to adopt science as their standard of belief. In keeping with that adoption, many naturalists see it as their duty to defend science against the supernatural. I contend that naturalists, in trying to defend science, threaten instead to introduce the evils of the worst religious orthodoxy into science. I believe this outcome can occur for two main reasons:

First, many naturalists substitute science as their source of metaphysical belief since they lack any metaphysical claims of their own aside from rejecting all metaphysical claims. People are generally resistant to their beliefs being challenged, and so if people’s metaphysical beliefs are inextricably tied to their scientific beliefs, they are going to be much more dogmatic about scientific theories. And where, for example, a Christian might be content to simply reject science, leaving himself or herself sadly bereft of scientific knowledge but science itself fine, the naturalist, deriving their knowledge from science alone, has no choice but to try and warp science into not just an empirical expression but a metaphysical one as well–an orthodoxy about the nature of existence. This orthodoxy most often takes the form of believing that all reliable human experiences and knowledge must be reducible to an empirical level. Naturalistic orthodoxy strikes at heart of science itself by trying to make science into the new orthodoxy and thereby destroy the questioning and theorizing that makes the scientific enterprise possible.

2014-01-30 Karl Popper
Karl Popper

The signs of this orthodoxy are clear enough in how people speak about science. We may rightly say that scientific theories are well-tested and highly explanatory. We may not say they are proven or true, and yet many people choose these exact words. I cannot state this point emphatically enough. Anyone who says science proves theories is making an anti-scientific statement. Karl Popper, the famous philosopher of science, played a large role in asserting this view of science:

Scientific theories, for [Popper], are not inductively inferred from experience, nor is scientific experimentation carried out with a view to verifying or finally establishing the truth of theories; rather, all knowledge is provisional, conjectural, hypothetical—we can never finally prove our scientific theories, we can merely (provisionally) confirm or (conclusively) refute them; hence at any given time we have to choose between the potentially infinite number of theories which will explain the set of phenomena under investigation. Faced with this choice, we can only eliminate those theories which are demonstrably false, and rationally choose between the remaining, unfalsified theories. Hence Popper’s emphasis on the importance of the critical spirit to science—for him critical thinking is the very essence of rationality. For it is only by critical thought that we can eliminate false theories, and determine which of the remaining theories is the best available one, in the sense of possessing the highest level of explanatory force and predictive power.

My pronouncement may seem like a semantics game–people conceivably could use ‘proven’ as shorthand for the much bulkier ‘well-tested and highly explanatory’–but I believe a view more worrying is at play when people state, “Science has proven this theory.” They are using science not as an expression of our current best understanding of the natural world, but as the only understanding they believe we will ever have about existence.

2014-01-30 Dan Kahan
Dan Kahan

Believing science has shown us the only true understanding of the world leads to yet another problem: People begin to conflate accepting scientific conclusions as a measure of how well you understand science. Since science is the truth, if you do not accept it, that must mean you simply do not understand it. This is another anti-scientific attitude. As Dan Kahan rightly points out in the comments sections of his “Cultural Cognition” blog, a brief study of scientific history reveals the necessity of decoupling understanding theories from accepting theories in order to produce new scientific theories. Dr. Kahan cites how Einstein needed to understand and yet reject Newtonian physics to come up with relativity, just as proponents of quantum physics needed to understand and yet reject relativity to come up with quantum physics. Orthodoxy does not allow you to decouple understanding and acceptance: If the final truth has been discovered, you only reject it for lack of understanding.

Second, for some naturalists, their strongest commitment is to naturalism, not science, and therefore they will be highly opposed to any scientific theory that conflicts with naturalism or gives credence to supernatural claims. A good example of this point is the Steady State Theory. Steady State Theory was a popular theory in the early to mid 20th century and stated that the universe has always existed, in contrast to the Big Bang theory which has a clear beginning of the universe. As PBS puts mildly, “[t]his struck a philosophical chord with a number of scientists, and the steady-state theory gained many adherents in the 1950s and 1960s.” The theory was only abandoned after a long struggle and discovery of strong falsifying evidence in part due to the popular philosophical implications of the theory among naturalist scientists.

To be fair, problems can and have arisen when scientific theories conflict (or seemingly conflict) with supernatural claims. My point here is not to set up a competition between supernaturalism and naturalism over who is the “true” defender of science. Neither group is. The true defender of science is anyone who recognizes that any orthodoxy is a threat to the scientific enterprise. Thus Karl Popper invites us all to become defenders of science, not by what particular metaphysical beliefs we hold or reject, but by upholding this opposition to orthodoxy in our quest for greater understanding of the world in which we live:

I hope that my proposals may be acceptable to those who value not only logical rigour but also freedom from dogmatism; who seek practical applicability, but are even more attracted by the adventure of science, and by discoveries, which again and again confront us with new and unexpected questions, challenging us to try out new and hitherto undreamed-of answers.

As a final note, I cannot state enough how large of a role Dan Kahan played in getting my mind turning on this subject. I have shared Karl Popper’s views on the scientific enterprise for some time, but Dan Kahan helped me start connecting my understanding of the philosophy of science to modern day issues in science. His blog can be found here.