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How we figured out why people walk up staircases but not up escalators.

And yet somehow last summer, we [an upper-echelon economics department] managed to spend a week in a state of collective befuddlement, obsessing over a seemingly impenetrable conundrum that came up over lunch: If people stand still on escalators, then why don't they stand still on stairs?

Taking a step has a certain cost, in terms of energy expended. That cost is the same whether you're on the stairs or on the escalator. And taking a step has a certain benefit—it gets you one foot closer to where you're going. That benefit is the same whether you're on the stairs or on the escalator. If the costs are the same in each place and the benefits are the same in each place, then the decision to step or not to step should be the same in each place.

So what's the moral of the story? To me, the moral is that we should take seriously what we tell our students: Marginal analysis really works. If it seems not to be working, the right question is not, "Why doesn't the marginal analysis work?" Instead, the right question is, "How am I failing to understand the marginal analysis?" or, more succinctly, "In what way am I being stupid?"

(link via Scott)

Apparently marginal analysis is an economist's scripture.
Kyrgyzstan: Government Stages Public Rallies

Kyrgyzstan has been swept by a tide of government-sponsored rallies in support of beleaguered President Askar Akaev.

One such rally was attended by between 8,000 and 15,000 people in Bishkek on August 22. The event was initiated by the local administration, which has the power to grant or deny permission for mass protests in the city centre.

However, the country's increasingly vocal opposition has dismissed the events, claiming the majority of people who attended were government officials, public sector employees and pensioners. "The rally was engineered by the government and there were many plainclothes police among the participants," claimed the independent newspaper Moya Stolitsa-Novosti.

The protesters also called for the term of Akaev's presidency to be extended from five years to seven.

These events were organised immediately after a group of opposition leaders reiterated their intention to press for Akaev's resignation.

The last two sentences are what concern me. Beyond the disagreement among the Kyrgyz people about whether Akaev has done a good job as president loom the larger issue of the rule of law. The rule of law is a concept of governance that recognizes that nobody will have a purely disinterested and objective position on any particular issue. Perspectives are always limited, and that is going to affect governance done on a case-by-case basis. Under the rule of law, general principles -- in this case, elections at specified and non-negotiable intervals -- establish a process through which all cases are filtered. Though the rule of law can be taken too far, becoming rigidly bureaucratic and unable to take contextual factors into account, some degree of rule of law is necessary to set limits on power and establish a reliable social structure. The assumption that a policy is beneficial (such as the continued leadership of Akaev) can't be allowed to let it be implemented without going through the proper channels. And where a robust culture of the respect for the rule of law has not developed, adherence to the principle in practice becomes even more important. So calling for Akaev's resignation is more dangerous to Kyrgyzstan than calling for Bill Clinton's resignation was to the US, despite the greater severity of Akaev's crimes. The rule of law in the US was robust enough that we could afford to make an exception based on a consideration of a particular case because doing so would not question an entrenched system. But the Kyrgyz rule of law is weak enough that it can't afford many exceptions.


Global Warming Is Good For You!

The paper claims that the release of more carbon dioxide from fossil fuels "will help to maintain and improve the health, longevity, prosperity and productivity of all people." It concludes that "we are living in an increasingly lush environment of plants and animals as a result of CO2 increase. Our children will enjoy an Earth with far more plant and animal life as that with which we are now blessed. This is a wonderful and unexpected gift from the Industrial Revolution."

This is a long but interesting article on how the science behind the global warming theory gets used and spun in the media.


112 Reasons to Lead a Barren, Childless Existence That Ends in Your Death

60. You know how when you were a kid, there were some other kids in your peer group you didn't like, who were annoying?
61. What if, as your child gets older, you start to think he's annoying?!
62. It's not like you can send her back.
63. Or give her up for adoption to some annoying family.
64. And because the kid is in many respects just an amplifier for all of your own attributes, including the less-attractive ones, then you have to ask yourself, "Am I annoying?"
65. Your friends' kids might be cooler than yours and make you jealous that you didn't end up with the kick-ass kids.

Now I'm even more convinced I don't want offspring. I think sea turtles are more highly evolved than us -- they can just lay their eggs and leave them.


Delaware Police Stir Controversy By Compiling Database Of Future Suspects

Police in Delaware are trying to get a head-start on cracking crimes before they happen by setting up a database that contains a list of people who officers believe are likely to break the law.

Defense attorneys and the American Civil Liberties Union ( news - web sites) oppose the database, which lists names, addresses and photographs of the potential suspects — many of whom have clean slates.

The precise grounds for putting a person on the list aren't clear. But since the system was introduced in Wilmington in June, most of the 200 people included in the file have been minorities from poor, high-crime neighborhoods.

State and federal prosecutors say the tactic is legal, but defense lawyers object to the practice.

I think there's a conspiracy to bankrupt the ACLU's legal fees fund.


It seems to me that there are two ways to read a text if you're trying to learn from it -- critical and scriptural.

Critical reading is what college tries to teach you. When you read critically, you approach the text with a skeptical attitude. You evaluate the ideas and arguments that are proposed, and subject them to rigorous analysis. You test out the ideas to see if they're incomplete, if the author has made assumptions that are unsubstantiated or not adequately addressed an issue. Ultimately, we decide whether or not to agree with the various propositions in the text.

Scriptural reading begins with the opposite attitude. It begins with the assumption that the text contains the truth -- maybe not on the surface, but somewhere, if you dig down far enough and look at it the right way. It may seem that scriptural reading is on the decline in our society, as science and a declining expectation of divine revelation have made us more skeptical. But all too often a shallow form of scriptural reading has taken over. Our faith in "experts" (a pragmatic necessity, given the vast increase in the amount of knowledge available, which leads anyone attempting to become a Renaissance Man to turn into Jack of all trades, master of none) and intellectual laziness (another pragmatic development, as nobody can think hard all the time) lead us to take texts at face value. But this is not high caliber scriptural reading, any more than saying "that doesn't sound right" and leaving it at that is good critical reading. Good scriptural reading requires the same level of analysis as critical reading -- indeed, perhaps even more rigorous, because concluding that something isn't right isn't an option. To say something isn't true is to leave the scriptural framework, to decide that a text cannot be treated as scripture and can only be read critically. If a text seems wrong our only option as scriptural readers is to dig deeper and wider, finding additional information or context or new perspectives that reveal truth in it.

Scriptural reading is valuable in that it serves as a catalyst to thought. We can't stop with the conclusion that something is wrong, so we have to work ourselves harder to make it true. It raises issues in a challenging way and doesn't allow us to set them aside because we don't agree. Which is not to say that scriptural reading is necessarily better or worse than critical reading (as always, the utility of a strategy depends on the context). For some people, some texts just cannot be read scripturally. Indeed, most texts, on their deepest level, will require critical reading.

There are certain characteristics that make a text suitable for scriptural reading. The best scripture is open-ended, allowing for many different readings and perspectives. For example, though people criticize the Bible for being diverse to the point of contradictoriness, it is this very diversity that allows it to serve as scripture for so many people. A closely argued book -- such as most books about Christian theology, particularly ones by modern authors who share so many unspoken cultural assumptions with us -- is restrictive. It's hard to take in a way different from what the author wanted. And so, if its surface doesn't contain the truth, it becomes hard to find anything else there, and we are forced to become critical. The exact content of the scripture is not all-important, because the text's role is one of a catalyst. It provides grist for our thought process. Ultimately, the truths we glean from the text come not so much from the text as from our mind's interaction with the text. The text is like atmospheric dust, which provides the nuclei around which raindrops form.

There is also an element of suspension of disbelief involved in reading scripturally. Scriptural reading requires the a priori assumption that the text contains the truth. So it is difficult, except as a mental exercise, to just pick up a text and decide to read it scripturally. Sometimes a text will strike us with an unexpected truth as we begin to read, which will fill us with hope that it can be read scripturally. Other times it requires an act of faith, an expectation that there is a divine or spiritual revelation contained in the text. This act of faith requires a difficult sort of near-doublethink if we are aware of the text's role as a catalyst, because it can only work as a catalyst when we assume it is a source.

The importance of the reader's relationship to the text, as opposed to the inherent content of the text, can seem unsettling at first. Many people want to believe that some text out there -- be it the Bible, tarot cards, their dreams, or something else -- has the answers (and indeed you need to assume you've found it to be able to read scripturally). But it can also be liberating. It wouldn't work out too well for us if the one universally true scripture were the oral tradition of the Pitjantjatjara people. When it's the relationship to the text that's important, we can be more comfortable reading the scripture that's near us (which is not to say that any scripture works for anyone, or that searching can't turn up a much more valuable scripture). We can exchange the criterion of "is it the true scripture?" for "does it work for me to treat this as scripture?" I don't have to worry that I'm irrationally clinging to the cultural conditioning of my upbringing by always trying to harmonize my understanding of the Bible with my understanding of the world as a whole. Instead I'm taking advantage of my comfort with treating the Bible as scripture to suspend skepticism and exercise my brain in a different way.


The new Lego sets seem to be trading in the "able to be taken apart and made into new things" aspect for the "media tie-in" aspect. Soon they'll be just glorified Happy Meal toys.


The bike guy that's painted in the bike lane on Connecticut Ave. has a head shaped like a mushroom. I assume that's meant to indicate that he's wearing a helmet (a subtle safety message from our city authorities), which in some way is almost as weird.


More proof that the people who write the CNN ticker need more sleep: Today we learned that the Afghan poppy crop is recovering after being "Tali-banned" last year.


In the interests of enlightening the public and using up my webspace, I'm HTML-ing some papers and essays from the past four years. So far, I've finished the two papers I wrote for my Australian history class:

Why Did The British Found A Colony At Botany Bay? In which I argue that the traditional "they needed a place to dump their convicts" explanation is the correct one.

Why Did Australia Build The "Great White Walls" To Bar Chinese Immigration? In which I argue that, given their racist assumptions, Australians saw the Chinese as a barrier to their struggle to found a liberal, democratic state.

The links to the index page of papers and essays (found at the bottom) may not work yet.


I just finished Daniel Quinn's The Story Of B, which, like Ishmael, I read straight through in a day. Like Ishmael, it presents a lot of interesting ideas about ecological philosophy, but grounds them in a misunderstanding of the cultural ecology of the origin of agriculture. But The Story Of B also presents an interesting -- though likely inadvertant -- message about Christianity.

The surface message of B as it pertains to Christianity, and probably the only level Quinn was thinking about it on, is a fairly familiar argument (despite the narrator's protestations of originality). Christianity, along with every other philosophical strand of post-agricultural-revolution thought, is implicated in creating an exploitative attitude toward nature, which has led to our current ecological and social crisis. In the book, the narrator is a priest sent by the Roman Catholic church to investigate whether a revolutionary philosopher lecturing in Germany, known to his followers as "B", is the Antichrist. The book expounds B's view of the ecological unsustainability of our culture and ultimately concludes that he is the Antichrist, but that that is a good thing. Rejecting the (often Christian) exploitative philosophy of our culture is the only way to survive.

My initial reaction was typical of how I feel when I read this type of argument. I protest that the destructive philosophy attributed to Christianity isn't the "real" Christianity, or at least that the Christian tradition is salvageable and even contains the seeds of a more ecological philosophy (as the article linked two posts ago examines). But as I read the last page of the book, it struck me that B's viewpoint is in fact very Christian, in a very mainstream way. B is the Antichrist to the church as an institution (and thus a Roman Catholic priest makes an excellent symbol), which has been part of a great deal of troubles in its history (and makes possible the defense that what has been done by Christians in the name of Christianity is not what Christianity is really about). But when Jesus' message is considered in itself, what B is proposing is simply a retelling of the Biblical story on an ecological, rather than spiritual, plane.

B's mytho-history of human civilization in a nutshell is this: Through most of human history, humans have been "Leavers" -- that is, people who are content to let nature (aka the gods, as they are animists) decide what to provide for them. But several thousand years ago, one tribe in Mesopotamia got a new idea that led them to become "Takers" -- people who take on the role of god for themselves and appropriate nature for their own use. While the Leaver strategy is time-tested and in accordance with the laws of nature, our present state is clear proof that the Taker strategy is about to fail. We can't manage the environment; we have to let it manage itself.

This outline resonates with how Christianity (and what sprung to mind first was how it is presented by Jehovah's Witnesses) answers the Problem of Evil, namely, why does a loving God allow bad things to happen? I'm focussing here on how this theology is envisioned by Jehovah's Witnesses for two reasons. First, they can conveniently represent, in contrast to the Catholic church, a de-institutionalized version of Christianity, as they take very seriously the Reformation ideas of the importance of direct study of the Bible and a renunciation of the earthly politics that has gotten the Catholic church in so much trouble over the centuries. And second, I'm more familiar with their theology as a coherent system due to discussions with a Witness on the Brunching board.

Jehovah's Witnesses summarize human history as follows: God set everything up so that people could live in harmony with the world, and He would take care of things. But then Adam and Eve got the idea that they could decide better than God how people ought to live, and ate the forbidden fruit. God's response was essentially "you think you can figure out how to run things better than I can? Well, go ahead and try." The sufferings that followed serve as proof that people can't do it alone, and eventually the human system will collapse as foretold in the book of Revelation.

The parallels between Takers' relationship to the laws of nature and humanity's relationship to God's commands should be obvious. There are differences, to be sure. Quinn makes a big issue out of the fact that most human societies chose to remain Leavers until the Takers wiped them out, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses would say we're all descended from Adam and Eve. And since there is no ecological afterlife, Quinn's focus is on the idea that if we return to choosing the laws of nature we can avoid Armageddon, whereas Jehovah's Witnesses would say that the system has to be left to collapse under its own weight before we (as a society) can pick ourselves up and try living God's way. But the similarities are strong enough to make me stop and think about how B can be seen as a book not just about the relationship between Christianity (and other civilized philosophies) and animism, but also about the relationship between Christianity as an institution and Christianity as a religion.
I think that "wymyn" are going about it all wrong.

Now, I can understand the desire to reform the language to more properly reflect the philosophy of those who are using it. And it makes sense not to want the word for "adult female human" (AFH) to look like a derivative of the word for "adult male human" (AMH). But twisting the spelling of "woman" does not seem the most satisfactory way of going about that. "Wymyn" (or however one spells is) presents three problems. First, it remains two syllables long, while "man" is only one. This creates an imbalance in the language. Rhythm-wise and space-wise, they aren't interchangeable. Second, it presents the two words as fundamentally different. The purpose is to eliminate the commonality between "man" and "woman," which then implies that they're two completely different creatures. Third, it presents the corrollary problem of expunging "man" from compound words like "chairman" and "manhole," so as not to make those words gender biased. This leads to awkward phrasings like "chairperson."

What I propose is to return the word "man" to its archaic definition as "person," and find a new word for AMH. This word would be patterned on "woman" -- a derivative of "man." The words for AMH and AFH would indicate that they are specific sub-categories of men. One possibility for this new word would be "yoman." The Y seems an obvious choice, as a parallel to the Y chromosome that is uniquely male. And the word evokes the idea of a yeoman -- a person from the middle ages who was neither master nor serf. Thus it would have positive connotations of upright moral character, freedom, and self-reliance. "Yoman" would preserve the linguistic commonality between AMHs and AFHs, while allowing "man" to be used as a convenient monosyllabic root indicating a person.


Christianity And The Survival Of Creation

We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God. Elihu said to Job that if God "gather unto himself his spirit and his breath; All flesh shall perish together . . . " Job 34:15). And Psalm 104 says: "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created.... " Creation is God's presence in creatures. The Greek Orthodox theologian, Philip Sherrard, has written that "Creation is nothing less than the manifestation of God's hidden being." Thus we and all other creatures live by a sanctity that is inexpressibly intimate. ... We will discover that, for these reasons, our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them.

This is a very long essay, but an interesting one. The author is responding to environmentalists who have rightly pointed out the ways Christianity has been complicit in the desctruction of the world through history, but who have wrongly concluded that this attitude is truly Christian, that the religion is unsalvageable. He looks into the Bible and finds a religion promoting deep respect for nature, one that rejects the popular dualism of creator/creation and spirit/body. And he points out that truly religious action involves not going through rituals but recognizing and respecting the holiness of creation in all our actions. His Christianity is at heart a nature religion. And I like it.
Amanda and Marty have returned to the blogging world. With new designs. Everyone's changing their templates! Oh the craziness!


Evangelist Graham Comments on Muslims

Muslim leaders haven't done enough to show their sorrow over Sept. 11, says the son of evangelist Billy Graham, adding to his harsh criticism of Islam.

Franklin Graham challenged the leaders to help rebuild New York or compensate the victims families.

"The silence of the clerics around the world is frightening to me," he said. "How come they haven't come to this country, how come they haven't apologized to the American people, how come they haven't reassured the American people that this is not true Islam and that these people are not acting in the name of Allah, they're not acting in the name of Islam?"

Graham writes in his new book, "The Name," that "Islam — unlike Christianity — has among its basic teachings a deep intolerance for those who follow other faiths."

It's frightening how, in many people's eyes, Muslims can't apologize enough for September 11. As if you're responsible for the actions of everyone who calls god by the same name you do. And it's surprisingly widespread -- the Grahams have a substantial following, and quite a few people posting in the Yahoo! message board at the end of the story agreed. I remember a letter in the Scene last year that insinuated that Omid Safi was an America-hating terrorist because he didn't condemn the attacks loudly or vocally enough.

I included the last paragraph because I like pointing out that after the Catholic Spanish ousted the relatively tolerant (for that age) Muslim Moorish regime, they started the Inquisition.
Bush, in Shift on Egypt, Links New Aid to Rights

The Bush administration will oppose any additional foreign aid for Egypt to protest the Egyptian government's prosecution of human rights campaigner Saad Eddin Ibrahim and its poor treatment of pro-democracy organizations, administration sources said yesterday.

The Ibrahim case makes it "impossible" for the administration to contemplate extra money for Egypt, according to a White House official who said President Bush will soon advise Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in writing of his decision. Existing aid programs will not be affected.

Bush's decision to criticize Mubarak and connect Egypt's human rights performance to economic aid is a notable shift in policy toward a longtime ally considered essential to U.S. efforts to calm the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and remove Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

A tiny step in the right direction. But past experience doesn't give me much confidence that this represents any kind of shift in policy.


Chronic Self-Doubters Tend To Be More Materialistic

"For those people who are chronically insecure, materialism seems to be a coping mechanism that they use when they are put in a situation that makes them doubtful about themselves," Arkin said.

"Chronic self-doubters are not interested in possessions because they bring happiness or because they simply like owning a lot of things," Arkin said. "They are interested in possessions because of their meaning, the status they confer. They believe their possessions demonstrate success."

But whether a person suffers from anomie or self-doubt, Arkin said materialism is a poor coping mechanism. Other studies have shown that a materialistic orientation to life is linked with poor psychological functioning and lower life satisfaction.

I think advertisers have known this for years. They play on people's insecurities (such as their penis size, to take a common example), and offer their product as a solution. For another example, take the most recent Dell commercial, in which Annoying Guy's nerdy roommate wins a trip to Paris because his mom bought him a Dell. The viewer identifies with the nerdy roomate, both because having a computer is still a slightly nerdy thing, and because Annoying Guy is presented as so archetypally cool that he's beyond most people's abilities. The commercial then reassures us, by showing Annoying Guy trying to help out his nerdy roommate. Finally, he succeeds -- through the magic of Dell, of course. The Dell giveaway is especially relevant because it's something you win -- which means it can be both a huge gain, and a stamp of specialness because so few people win.

But because material gain can't assuage insecurity, the cycle snowballs. Insecurity planted now will still be there for the next round of advertising. And it can ultimately create a habit of looking to material things for satisfaction, rather than pushing people to see how unsatisfying *stuff* proves to be.


(yeah, lots of posts today. I'll just quote the good part of this article, "commonplace blog"-style)

Philosophy Is Essential To The Intelligent Design Debate

But there is no reason to think that "truth" plays a major role in this discussion. Science constantly produces new theories and discoveries that are powerful, useful, and enlightening. But does that imply we are approaching "the truth"? Alas, no--although many scientists would like to think so.

Given the continuing success of science, this limitation is not an easy idea to grasp, especially for scientists. To better understand it, compare the progress of science with that of biological evolution itself. Organisms evolve; new ones emerge from the old, which results in the impressive array of living systems around us that are, for the most part, wonderfully adapted to their present environments. Does this mean that the process of evolution was directed toward a goal? That the present living forms were preordained in the primeval soup? Of course not. The life forms that exist now just happen to be the ones that arose from a vast number of initial possibilities.

Likewise, scientific theories evolve according to how well they answer, at any given time in history, the immediate questions of interest to scientists. As a result, the present impressive array of theories has developed to satisfactorily answer the questions that interest us now. But that does not mean that science is goal-directed and thus progressing toward the "truth." The present theories were not predetermined to be discovered, any more than the first amphibians that crawled out of the oceans many years ago had the concept of humans encoded for future emergence. Science works--and works exceedingly well--because of its naturalistic approach, predictive nature, and methods of operation. To be valid, science does not have to be true.
It's amazing how similar people's feelings about skeptical debunkers' books are to their feelings about books about the stuff they're debunking:

From a review of Frauds, Myths, And Mysteries: Science And Pseudoscience In Archaeology: "I personally was reminded how easy it is to fool people who want to believe something and aren't moved to investigate or challenge the beliefs they are comfortable with. The gist of the book seems to be that people who rely mostly upon faith can end up believing just about anything, while those who are inclined to question and test new information via logic, scientific methods, and common sense are more likely to actually uncover the facts for themselves, doing away with faith altogether."

From a review of Forbidden Archaeology: The Hidden History Of The Human Race: "Michael Cremo and Richard Thompson have brought the facts, the hard evidence and the ideas based on them into the light, and one can not overvalue that. The book has rather had a double impact - first, the authors showed to the public the hidden truth that is striking, much impressing, but based on the facts; second, they inevitably make us realize how unbelievable the position of the modern science is - "don't trust your eyes, trust my theory" is what may best be a slogan of those "real" scientists. The second part of the "impact" is rather most important - one more time a reader has a chance to see how a modern science can be an obstacle on the way of the general scientific progress, how a widely accepted theory can prevail over the logical and really scientific approach, how an established scientific society can hide or destroy the evidence that opposes the official views only in the name of pure officially supported theory."

We all think we're rationally considering the evidence in an unprejudiced manner, while those who disagree are dogmatically clinging to a theory and only listening to the evidence that supports it.
Catholics Reject Evangelization of Jews

The Catholic Church, which spent hundreds of years trying forcibly to convert Jews to Christianity, has come to the conclusion that it is theologically unacceptable to target Jews for evangelization, according to a statement issued yesterday by organizations representing US Catholic bishops and rabbis from the country's two largest Jewish denominations.

Citing teachings dating back to the Second Vatican Council, and statements by Pope John Paul II throughout his papacy, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared unequivocally that the biblical covenant between Jews and God is valid and therefore Jews do not need to be saved through faith in Jesus.

''A deepening Catholic appreciation of the eternal covenant between God and the Jewish people, together with a recognition of a divinely-given mission to Jews to witness to God's faithful love, lead to the conclusion that campaigns that target Jews for conversion to Christianity are no longer theologically acceptable in the Catholic Church,'' declares the document, ''Reflections on Covenant and Mission.''

On the one hand, hooray for the Catholic Church becoming more tolerant and all that. But on the other hand, I don't quite understand the theology behind it. Granted, I'm not a Catholic, and I can't find the document itself (so I've only got the reporter's summary of their reasoning to go on). But it seems to conflict with the mainstream Christian understanding of Jesus' mission. Jesus presented himself not just as a person coming in with a new religious perspective, but specifically as the messiah promised to the Jews -- that's where he derives his authority from in mainstream Christianity. So I don't quite understand how the bishops can now say that the Jews were never meant to become Christians, and that it's God's plan for them to continue being Jewish.

Now, I can understand why the bishops would want to make a statement like this. They've taken an awful lot of (justified) criticism for centuries of persecution against Jews, up through complicity in the Holocaust. And the sex abuse scandal certainly isn't discouraging them from trying to clean up their image. But it strikes me as odd because it illustrates the loss of the middle ground between "kill the infidel" and "every religion in just as valid as every other." The bishops seem to be indicating that they can't find a way to be part of a pluralistic society without losing the proposition of being the "one true faith." While I don't believe there is one true faith (and if there is I doubt it's Roman Catholicism), I don't think it's impossible to maintain that you have the truth and that other people should convert, without targeting specific groups for conversion, or using invasive and coercive means to get converts, or treating people like they're beneath you in some way. It simply requires a commitment to the idea that the search for religious truth is a matter of personal conscience, and to respect others' right to search even if you're convinced they're looking in the wrong place.


William inspired me to join up with BlogTree. So I guess that makes him my BlogTree parent. *contemplates creating*


Partisan Politics From the Pulpit?

A bill that would allow houses of worship to engage in partisan politicking will face a vote in the House of Representatives in early September, observers in Washington say.

Rep. Walter B. Jones' "Houses of Worship Political Speech Protection Act" (H.R. 2357) was drafted by attorneys with TV preacher Pat Robertson's American Center for Law and Justice and is being aggressively pushed by numerous Religious Right organizations. The measure would change the Internal Revenue Code to allow houses of worship to use personnel and resources to endorse or oppose candidates for public office.

Federal tax law currently forbids non-profit groups, including houses of worship, from intervening in partisan campaigns if they are tax exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code. The Jones bill would lift that regulation -- but only for houses of worship.

I'm linking to the Witchvox version of this story because I found the angle of the comments made in the discussion section interesting. (And maybe it's sneaky to be talking about them behind their back, but I don't feel like it's my place to be butting into their discussion.) It seems like their reaction -- while correctly opposed to the bill -- is backward.

The reaction on Witchvox seems to be "this is wrong because churches shouldn't be involved in politics." Now, I agree with this philosophically. And I think enough religious people in the US agree that the vast majority of religious organizations wouldn't take advantage of the bill if it were passed. But Constitutionally speaking, the argument doesn't hold up. As I see it, the intent of the First Amendment religion clauses is to prevent the government from making decisions on questions of religion. So for the government to maintain a ban on church-backed political action in order to prevent churches from getting involved in politics would be government making a decision on a question of religion (i.e., should a religious community be political). This closely parallels the (in my opinion) correct argument against this bill. What is being proposed is a special exemption for religious organizations. The government is granting a special privilege to certain organizations based on their religious nature (and thus deciding what is and isn't a religion). To pass the First Amendment test, a policy must treat organizations based on criteria other than their religiousness. Currently, all non-profit organizations -- be they sacred or secular -- follow the same rules. If you want to be tax-exempt, you have to eschew politics. Period. Repealing the political restriction on all non-profits would also be Constitutional (though not necessarily desirable, though that's a different issue). But treating religious non-profits differently from non-religious ones is clearly unconstitutional.
Court Rules Aborigines Have No Right To Minerals

Australia's highest court ruled on Thursday that Aborigines had no rights to mineral or petroleum resources in a landmark decision viewed as a victory for the mining industry that could scupper other native title claims.

The High Court also clarified that while mining and farming leases granted by the government did not necessarily extinguish Aboriginal claims to the land, the leases did prevail over native title rights in any conflict of interest.

"The court has held that there is no native title right to any minerals or petroleum," High Court Chief Justice Murray Gleeson told the court.

The complex, 500-page judgement was welcomed by the resources sector because if the court had ruled differently, mining companies may have been legally bound to compensate Aborigines or grant them royalties.

Well, at least the Aussies are honest about it, which means it might be open to a direct challenge. Of course, given how resistant John Howard has been to apologizing for the terrible things the government did to Aborigines over the past 200 years, I somehow doubt parliament will be jumping to pass a bill granting Aborigines mineral rights. The U.S. pretends that Native Americans are going to get money from the lands that the federal government administers on their behalf, but bureaucratic masmanagement (which is in some ways understandable -- it doesn't win you many votes to make reform of the BIA a campaign priority) means they don't see much of the proceeds.


UNC Draws Fire, Lawsuit For Assigning Book On Islam

But this year, the university in Chapel Hill is asking all 3,500 incoming freshmen to read a book about Islam and finds itself besieged in federal court and across the airwaves by Christian evangelists and other conservatives.

The university chose "Approaching the Qur'an: The Early Revelations" by Michael A. Sells, a professor of comparative religion at Haverford College, because of intense interest in Islam since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said UNC Chancellor James Moeser.

"We're obviously not promoting one religion," Moeser told concerned university trustees last month. "What more timely subject could there be?"

But a national TV talk show host, Fox News Network's Bill O'Reilly, compared the assignment to teaching "Mein Kampf" in 1941 and questioned the purpose of making freshmen study "our enemy's religion."

I won't bother addressing O'Reilly's quote. Anyone who can't see the many ways in which it's wrong is beyond hope of being reached by reason.

It seems clear to me that there's nothing unconstitutional about having students read a book on Islam. The difference between "teaching a religion" and "teaching about a religion" seems pretty basic. A university would be remiss in its mission of producing graduates with well-rounded understanding of the world if it strictly avoided mention of a subject that has had such a significant impact on the lives of people past and present.

But I don't know that Approaching the Qur'an was necessarily the best choice. The university said that the motivation for using a book on Islam was, of course, the increased interest in the topic following September 11. This is an interest generated by the high profile of violence in the name of Islam. Yet the book's author is quoted as saying he specifically avoided addressing that issue. This is not to say that the book itself is bad -- I hardly expect every book on Christianity to cover the Inquisition. But it seems strange that in response to growing interest in Islam because of its political manifestation, the university would pick a book that does not address that.

I understand the desire to see the other aspects of Islam. It's certainly not just about terrorism, and it would do the nation well if people understood the non-political side of it. But university administrators are fooling themselves if they think that political Islam won't be the focus of discussion about the book. That's the topic that will be on students' minds, especially when Bush ratchets up the saber-rattling in time for the elections this fall. So it seems that students would be better served by a more historical or poli-sci type of analysis, giving them a body of facts about violence in the name of religion that would enlighten their discussions (I'm told that Terror in the Mind of God, which addresses Christian fundamentalist attacks on abortion clinics and ultra-Zionist violence as well, is good).

The people filing the lawsuit made a similar point -- The real problem, he said, "is not the sin of the author, it's the sin of the university, which knows this book presents nothing controversial about Islam. ... Anybody who has read this book and this book alone is still going to be ignorant about why people are killing other people in the name of Allah."

But should there be a lawsuit over that? Hardly. It's interesting that the conservative Christian commentators who drummed up the lawsuit tend to be the first to gripe about "judicial activism" (not to mention posting the 10 commandments in schools...).


(yes, I'm still playing with my stylesheet.)
Why We Need Heaven

The urge for heaven is universal; we need it the way we need love. “It’s threatening to one’s entire sense of self” to imagine the end of life, says Sherwin B. Nuland, author of “How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter.” “So essentially we have to convince ourselves that there is an afterlife. Even those of us who don’t believe in one sneakingly wish there was one.”

This is a strikingly narrow view of things, and stated high up in a fairly lightweight article that's more musing than actual reporting. But it points out a big problem with the dominance of Christianity in our society, where for most people "religious diversity" means "Lutherans and Presbyterians and Episcopalians." People tend to assume that all religion is basically patterned the way Christianity is. Every religion has a holy book, its rules for getting into heaven, its clergy, and its god you have to worship or else. The article makes it seem as if the basic idea of heaven is the same and is equally appealing to everyone. It hints at the salvation by faith versus salvation by works debate, but for the most part disagreements about heaven are presented as questions of its decor and whose side you need to be on to get there.

If all religions basically work the same way, religious differences go from being serious philosophical disputes to being like picking a sports team -- you always want your side to win, but there's no objective standard for why one or the other ought to. This is a nice way to get people to be accepting of diverse religions instead of seeing all others as destined for hell, but in its over-simplicity it ultimately saps the meaning out of serious religious study. Few sports fans go through long periods of soul-searching as they decide what team to root for. We should be able to say that one religion is right and another is wrong, without having to add "for everybody."


GOP, Democrats Locked In Race Toward Decline

"Party allegiance is nothing with people my age. Party stuff is silly," says Dan Davila, 29, an easygoing college student. Like a lot of Minnesotans from around the Twin Cities, Davila comes from a long line of Democrats. But now he says with a shrug: "Who the hell cares who Grandma voted for?"

Davila is sitting behind a table at the Anoka County Fair. It is a summer evening; a light breeze stirs the aroma of grilled pork chops and live cows. Somewhere nearby, an Elvis impersonator is braying. On Davila's table are buttons and pamphlets extolling former representative Tim Penny for governor. Penny recently bolted from the Democratic Party to campaign as an independent -- a move that certainly hasn't hurt him, and in fact might account for his instant front-runner status.

This article explains why the Green Party, despite all the hopes of campus radical leftists, is probably not going to become a major force in American politics (and neither are the Libertarians, though it's possible that they could adapt).

The basic argument of the article is that cultural partisanship -- voting for candidate X because he's a Democrat (and your family or region has always voted Democrat), rather than because he's a competent leader or because his stands on issues make sense -- is on the decline. Candidates are increasingly appealing to their committed interest groups -- for example, evangelical Christians for the Republicans, and organized labor for the Democrats -- and leaving nonpartisan (and generally centrist) voters out of it. The loss of these voters shifts power into the hands of extremists, leading to even more extreme candidates being selected, which further alienates centrists. Races become more about getting turnout from your interest groups than appealing to a broad selection of voters.

The Green Party is not set up to take advantage of this phenomenon. In fact, it premises its existence on the opposite idea -- that the Democrats aren't radical enough. While this may prove true in the presidential race, when candidates follow the "go extreme to get the nomination, then go center to win the race" game plan, most other races never have that second stage. And if the vicious cycle of alienation and radicalization continues, the Democrats could co-opt the Green agenda (certainly not completely, but enough to prevent the Greens from ever becoming a major force). And it would be very difficult for the Green Party to recast itself as the centrist alternative to the corrupt (or just disconnected, as the nonpartisan center is more disappointed than angry) party machines. The Green agenda is based on radical social change and a dependence on government intervention, while most nonpartisans are culturally moderate and skeptical of politcs.


I ate this really nasty reuben for dinner last night. Now, I thought that wouldn't be an issue for me today. But then I realized what the body does when it breaks food down into nutrients. That reuben is currently in my cells...


No-Respect Politics

To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: Conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.

And Krauthammer goes on to say that the fact that liberals think conservatives are evil proves that conservatives are right in thinking liberals are stupid. This column is a good illustration of a basic law of commentary. In quasi-mathematical format, it goes like this: If argument f states that conservatives are X or that liberals are Y, then f is false. I should send Krauthammer the hundreds of columns I've read in which conservatives decry the way (presumably evil) liberals are destroying the moral fabric of society, or the hundreds in which liberals justify the "ivory tower intellectual" stereotype by railing about how conservatives are blind to obvious facts because of their ideologies.

If commentators could stick to making specific and substantive criticisms of policies rather than knocking down overgeneralized caricatures of their supposed opposition, the political climate would be a fair bit healthier. But then there would be an awful lot of out-of-work pundits, and as a bleeding-heart liberal I wouldn't want to put my colleagues on the streets during this recession.
The Book Of Mormon -- Artifact Or Artifice?

If you attempted to produce something like the Book of Mormon today, using the best science fiction writers, fully aware of all that we know about the culture of Meso-America, fully aware of everything that we know about how you create a fake document, it would still be obvious, if not immediately, then within 15 or 20 years. The cultural assumptions behind the book would reveal themselves, showing clearly exactly when the book was really written. But the Book of Mormon has been around a lot longer than that, and believe me, folks, I really do understand a lot about how science fiction is made and I can't find anywhere that it's done wrong. Search all you like through that book. I have, and I can't find a flaw. Yet we should expect to find a consistent pattern of getting it wrong. Not just one example, but thousands of examples within a book that long, but -- they are not there.

This essay inadvertantly illustrates how impossible it is to prove or disprove the authenticity of a document based on internal evidence. When I read the Book of Mormon, it seemed to be quite transparently the invention of a 19th century Christian. But to a devout Mormon like Orson Scott Card, it sounds too good to be faked.

Arguments like the ones Card makes boil down to second-guessing the autor, trying to guess how well he should have been able to pull off a hoax and what a real document would look like. To every point that Card says "Joseph Smith ought to have made a mistake here, but he didn't," a skeptic can reply "well, if you noticed that, why couldn't Smith have noticed it and properly faked it?" (Many of Card's points seem to me to assume that Smith was unjustifiably naive about the universality of 19th century cultural norms, and the source for many of these supposedly impossibly alien ideas can be found right in the Bible, which a hoaxing Smith would have been consciously imitating.) And to every assertion of a mistake, Card could claim that it crept in through translation.

Of course, in the case of the Book of Mormon, there is plenty that can be verified by outside sources. Not a single bit of Israelite metalwork, architecture, livestock, or crops has been found in a pre-Colombian archaeological context, despite the supposed centuries of great Nephite and Lamanite populations in the New World.

Now, that may seem an unnecessarily harsh indictment of someone else's religion, especially given the scientific and archaeological impossibilities in the first dozen or so chapters of Genesis. But Scott gets to the heart of the matter at the end of his essay:

The Book of Mormon only matters because it's a life-changing book.

The truth, the important truth of the Book of Mormon is only understood with the Spirit through faith. If you don't believe in the book, it's not going to change your life. And I mean believe in it in a way far different from believing it's a genuine artifact. You have to believe in it also as something meant for you as a guide to your life. So, I have very little interest in attempting to prove the book. I haven't proven it here. The only real proof is when you prove it with your life, living the gospel it teaches and participating in the Church that was established with that book as the mortar holding it all together.

Whether a tradition is true or not isn't the issue. It's whether it gives you the vocabulary to express something more important than where the ancestors of the Native Americans came from.
(insert blurb about not usually doing quizzes)



According to CNN, pretty much everything is "under fire." Pollution Controls Under Fire, President Bush Under Fire, Colorado Firefighters Under Fire. But I suppose that beats their other option -- bad puns.