Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Creationism at the Founding

Many of the Founders of our nation were probably creationists by today's standards.

Yes, creationism was a staple of education for many, many years before evolution by natural selection was proposed to the Linnaean Society in 1858 by Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, who would publish On The Origin of Species the following year. Then it took several more years before the majority of biologists would accept the theory as one valid working model among several and another few decades before it became accepted as the best working scientific theory by biologists.

It is absurd to think that the founders of our nation would have been able to take into account scientific developments that would not happen for 80 years or more. So no, they did not forbid the teaching of what was to them the working model of biological understanding. We no longer have that excuse as the theory of evolution by natural selection has been accepted biological science for many decades.

So in deciding what can be taught legally in science classrooms in publicly funded schools, we can't look to the Founders to teach us science but we can follow their strict rule against government endorsement of religion. Which is what getting creationism out of science classrooms is about. Creationism is not an alternative scientific theory, not even in the eyes of the law, let alone among the overwhelming majority of biologists.

See the decision of the Federal court from the 2005 Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District trial: "In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents."

The Bible has been and remains a profoundly important book. Christianity has been and is a profoundly important influence on our culture. It would be foolish to ignore those facts and raise children in this country to be ignorant of them. So I'm actually in favor of teaching the Bible as literature or as an important influence on history or in a comparative religion class. This is literature or social studies though, not science.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Not All Extremist

Despite living in a secular country with laws and founding principles that forbid theocracy, there is still a significant, well funded, very loud, and influential Christian movement that is actively working to bring their Christian theology into daily American life via local and national government. They achieve successes because they claim to represent Christianity as a whole and therefore a large majority of Americans. Although one might characterize these theocrats as being fringe elements of Christianity, that is not how they present themselves or solicit help from their fellow Christians.

Pointing out that these groups exist and are dangerous to the liberty of non-Christians is not an indictment of all Christianity. I am personally sorry if self professed mainstream Christians are offended by atheists like me discussing the activities of fundamentalist Christians without constantly emphasizing the distinction between the theocrats and them. Look, I get it, it sucks to be lumped in with those people and I am sorry to inadvertently imply a connection among you that you don't like. I imagine moderate Muslims can relate to that. But how are we supposed to know that religious moderates oppose the extremists unless they actually oppose them loudly and consistently. Otherwise it is not unreasonable to be concerned that the silence is perhaps tacit approval of the goals of the fundamentalists if not the tactics.

Monday, August 8, 2011

A Better Budget Analogy

The budget, deficit, and credit problems of the United States are complex, being made up of many interconnected issues. In an attempt to break down the overall series of problems into more easily discussed topics, a lot of political writers have been indulging in analogies. A popular version has been to compare the American budget to a family's budget.

What they come up with goes a little something like this:

Imagine that you earn $50,000 per year, but that you spend $75,000 per year. How do you solve that problem to avoid building up so much debt that you go bankrupt? You cut your spending and live within your means. The government needs to cut spending and be responsible like you would with your personal budget.

That is a bad analogy. It serves to illustrate the conservative point of view very well, namely that the solution is to cut federal programs as much as possible. But as an analogy of the issues facing the United States government it is a failure because it does not account for the actual behavior of our government that lead to the crisis we now face. We have been cutting taxes while simultaneously increasing spending. We have voluntarily reduced the "income" of our theoretical family in the analogy.

Let me see if I can come up with a better analogy:

Imagine that life is treating your family very well. You make more than you spent so you decide to cut back on the hours you work and therefore reduce your income. Meanwhile your family expenses keep going up and you start renting two very expensive vacation homes. In short order, you are not earning enough money to pay for all of that and are borrowing money make up the difference. Your debt is climbing out of control. What should you do to fix it?

Firstly, get back to full time work. Maybe you should even pick up some extra hours at work to earn some extra income, at least until you can get your debt under control. Then cut any extra unnecessary expenses, like those vacation homes, so that you can maintain the family essentials like safe food, health care, clean water, housing, education for your kids, retirement savings, investment in the future, etc. No you might not be able to expand those essentials in this time of crisis, but you can preserve them if you go back to work.

Like my theoretical family, our government needs to earn more which means raising taxes. It means raising taxes a lot to wipe out the deficit and to get debt under control. This should be the very first order of business, just as returning to full time work and putting in extra hours would be in the family analogy. Then cut out the unnecessary, expensive, vacation homes; the ridiculous war mongering in the Middle East that we can not afford to sustain. Then cut other bits from the budget with an eye towards doing the least harm to the citizens of America, especially those who really need help like the children in the family analogy.

No, even my analogy isn't perfect. No analogy ever really is and in this case we are trying to draw comparisons between the budget of the United States to that of a family. Yeah, that is a quite a stretch. But at least my analogy takes into account the voluntary reduction of income that tax cuts represent and that makes it better than the conservative version.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Birtherism is not Rational

Whether or not the President was born in America has never been a matter of genuine controversy among reasonable people because the facts and documents do not cast doubt on the issue. That hasn't stopped "birther" conspiracies from popping up, but none of them are any better supported by the evidence than "moon landing" conspiracies and are a tool of the irrational or the obtuse.

The State of Hawaii releases to citizens a copy of their certificate of live birth which has been called a short form document. If you are a citizen of Hawaii and request a copy of your birth certificate, that is what they give you and that is all that is required by law to prove citizenship in the state, get a passport, run for office, etc. That is what the President provided way back in 2008 during his campaign for office.  In fact, the Obama campaign allowed reporters to examine his copy. Here are some pictures of it. Also, reporters researching this found that two newspapers in Honolulu ran birth announcements in August of 1961.

Not satisfied with any of that, birthers demanded to see the original document on file in Hawaii. The state of Hawaii does not release that document, but the director of Hawaii's Department of Health verified that it existed, that she had seen it, and that there was no doubt that then Senator Obama was born in Hawaii. Yet the conspiracy theory that the President was not a citizen continued, no matter how absurd it seemed.

More recently, the President asked for a special exemption of Hawaiian law so that a copy of the long form certificate of live birth that is kept by the Hawaiian Department of Health could be released. This was very unusual and would not have been done if not for the lunacy of birtherism in America. Which I am sad to say is still not gone, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the President is indeed a natural born US citizen.

I've embedded a lot of links to supporting information in this post. Please follow those links and read those documents. In some cases those web pages have embedded links of their own, so read those too. When I refer to the evidence of the President's citizenship being overwhelming, I'm not indulging in hyperbole.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Does The Universe Have Purpose?

I can ponder the tiny portion of the universe that I can perceive and find within it order. I can postulate that this order must have a purpose that applies to the whole universe imparting on it meaning. I can do these things from the prejudices and limitations of my mind thereby anthropomorphizing the universe, but I try not to.

The universe is. Within it are aspects that have or seem to have purpose. I think that I have purpose, even purposes that I have adopted, nurtured, and in some cases abandoned. But why should the universe as a whole share my motivations or what possible evidence would I have to assert that my motivations are somehow literally universal?

In short, no, I do not think that the universe has purpose in a human sense of the word.