Monday, July 29, 2013

Atheist Wins Debate in Delivery but NOT in Content

A congregant asked me to view a debate between an Atheist and a Christian Apologist (Sam Harris//William Craig).  If you Google Notre Dame’s God Debate II: “Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural?” you’ll find it on You Tube.  It’s interesting.  Here’s my take on it.

At first glance, it would seem that Harris (the Atheist) “won” the debate.  What I am conceding by saying this is that Harris seems to have won by his manner and his delivery, hitting the right emotive buttons for emotional suasion.  His rhetoric was excellent. 

Nevertheless, with regard to the actual question at hand, I believe that Craig (the Christian) made the better argument in terms of reason and pure logic.  However, truth be told, reason and pure logic rarely inspires people or convinces people.

I have to agree with Craig and say that Harris does not adequately address the question about the foundation for moral values.  Yes, I know that Harris claims that he tried to do exactly that, but he did not do so convincingly.  I was not at all persuaded by his rationale.

What Harris does is what everyone does when building an ontological case at its source.  He begins with a given, a two-part a priori assumption: (1) We are conscious beings and (2) we want wellbeing.  Now, as to the second part of this a priori assumption, wellbeing, Harris says that the axiom (self-evident truth) that goes with it is this: the worst possible misery for everyone is bad!

Craig claims that the foundation for that kind of statement is God.  On the other hand, Harris essentially says that there is no need of a foundation for that statement, for it is self-evident.  In that sense it becomes a mere truism.  His argument therefore is basically a tautology: “The worst possible misery for everyone is bad and it is obviously bad for everyone to experience the worst possible misery, so we must seek humanity’s wellbeing given that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad.”

But that is an assumption that presumes a foundational moral premise, which is precisely the key question of the debate.  That is, on what basis can we “authoritatively” say this?  In other words, Harris does not actually debate the question at hand; rather, he simply pronounces it as an axiomatic given.  In that sense, Craig is correct.  Harris never directly addresses the fundamental question, which is: what is the foundation for accepting the moral premise that “the worst possible misery for everyone is bad” (other than the fact that we humans do not like being miserable)?

What Harris does do very effectively is raise all the questions that religious wars and divisive religious doctrines have raised over the centuries: if there is a God, who is this God, what kind of God is God, and how do we rightly and properly come know this God?  These are questions touching upon theodicy, epistemology, hermeneutics, historical witness, and divine revelation respecting the intersection between phenomenology and the numinous.  He brushes aside these religious questions, as if they have no value worth considering, by summarily asserting that there is no evidence for religious beliefs in the first place.  History begs to differ with him on that assertion.  Here Harris makes the classic 18th century enlightenment assumption that goes something like this: Today we are smarter than that!  The ancients were more gullible and ignorant in their day and therefore believed in things that cannot be substantiated in today’s modern more enlightened world.

Suffice it to say that all these subjects (and more) have been discussed and debated by secular and religious philosophical scholars for centuries.  Harris is simply the new kid on the block repeating ancient arguments against any belief in God in the face of the existence of evil.  But Harris never addresses the question of the real nature of goodness verses evil, or why there is evil, or why we humans have a moral nature at all (other than to give a nod to evolutionary dynamics—which results in another tautology = “we are moral creatures because evolution produced us that way, and we know that evolution made us that way because that’s the way we are”).

So, no, I am not convinced by Sam Harris’ cool, smart, and well-presented arguments.  In short, my conclusion stands with William Craig’s.  I’d put it this way: it is true that one need not be a religious believer in God, in order to live as a moral person; nevertheless, as I understand the nature of the universe without God as its creator, I see no valid reason why anyone must or should or have-to choose morality over immorality, for there would be no real moral foundation (an authoritative “Says Who?!”) for choosing to live a moral life as such—other than to feel obligated to choose morality because Sam Harris says that I must.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Zimmerman Trial and the Question of Justice

If a fourth grader asked you to explain the concept of justice, how would you answer—given the attention span of a ten-year-old?

What is justice?

Is it tit-for-tat, an eye-for-an-eye?  Is it vengeance and revenge?  Does it involve remorsefulness and penance (from which we get the word penitentiary)?  Does it require personal change and correction (from which we get the term correctional institution)?  Or is it a simple matter of retribution, the idea of punishment plain and simple: You got to pay for what you did!

Notice: when we are the innocent victims of a crime, we want swift, sharp, and unmitigated justice with harsh and exact punishment?  But, when we are the guilty offender, we ask for understanding, personal consideration, and a review of mitigating circumstances, even leniency and compassion, if not mercy.

Perhaps this is why Lady Justice is often depicted as blindfolded, supposedly to represent unbiased, impartial, and non-prejudicial consideration, as she weighs the facts upon her scales?  There is to be no preferential treatment, neither to the powerful, nor to class or race or ethnicity, or any other possible prejudicial distinction between her citizens, when it comes to the pursuit of justice.

However, even children learn early on that real justice can be quite illusory and can often escape us.  A sibling bullies his sister without provocation of any kind.  The sister smashes her brother’s favorite toy in retaliation, just as mom or dad walks in the room.  The sister is held responsible and is severely punished for her deed while the brother’s instigating action is ignored.  The sister soon realizes that this is an unjust world within which we live.

Hence, justice is not simply about laws, legalities, and technicalities.  It is about people: about the need of interpersonal respect for the other, to take personal responsibility for one’s self, and to recognize our relational connectedness with each other.  Thus, a crime committed is first and foremost about personal harm that one has caused another, not just a matter of breaking a law and offending the State.  It requires a personal owning-up to the harm done to the other, and a recognition that, as a result of that harm done, one now has a personal obligation to make things right.  This is the language of Restorative Justice (See: The Little Book of Restorative Justice by Howard Zehr.)

Thus, with regard to the Zimmerman/Martin case, the State has been satisfied with its procedures and processes.  But the individuals and families involved—on both sides—are left unsatisfied and remain ill-at-ease.  Why?  Real and true justice has escaped them.  George Zimmerman continues to fear for his life, apparently receiving death threats from angry citizens who believe that he is truly guilty and that his guilt requires vengeance.  Meanwhile, the Martin family has been irrevocably damaged and hurt.  They will never see Trayvon again, this side of the grave—a direct result of George Zimmerman’s unwise choices and actions the night he fatally shot Trayvon Martin in what we are to understand was an act of self-defense.

In short, great personal harm has been done against the Martin family and no one seems to be in a position to make things right for this harm that has been committed against them, least of all George Zimmerman himself.  This is why so many believe that the system has failed to produce real justice.

Remove the State’s interests in this whole case.  Forget about certain Florida State laws, legalities, and technicalities for a minute.  And what do you have left: Two families that need to come to terms with each other.  Let’s grant that George Zimmerman truly reacted in self-defense at the moment he pulled the trigger.  Still, it is not as if he was purely innocent in the incident.  It seems apparent to most people that he minimally exercised poor judgment, took wrong action, and virtually instigated the whole initial conflict.  Thus, the least that Zimmerman could do on his part is to be receptive and open to directly hearing from the Martins, to directly embrace and give witness to their pain and agony, to personally and directly own, experience, and empathetically understand the impact that his fatal shooting of Trayvon has had and continues to have on the Martin family.  This is not asking for forgiveness or reconciliation; it is asking for ownership of one’s misguided behavior, ownership of some responsibility, and accepting some obligation and respect given to the Martin family.  However, that will never happen and can never happen, given the way our judicial system now works.

This is why few are pleased with the verdict and many are dissatisfied with its outcome.  There is no sense of real personal justice having happened.  There has been no real personal, relational accountability, no ability for either party to accept a kind of mutual and measured responsibility for a death that should not have happened.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Clean Water versus Cheap Oil

Which is more important, cheap oil or uncontaminated water?

It should be a no brainer.  But it’s not.  I’m talking about fracking.  Yes, again.  The subject won’t go away because we’re still pitting fresh water against access to oil and gas.

We may not realize it now, but available fresh, uncontaminated water is losing ground.  We prefer cheap oil/gas to inexpensive clean water.  Talk about misplaced priorities.  We can survive without oil.  We cannot survive without water.  Yet, oil fracking companies continue to pollute local wells and water ways free of accountability to the Clean Water Act.  And we the people are fine with that.  We’re going to be sorry.

It’s about seepage.  It’s about lack of accountability.  It’s about greed, power, and money speaking louder than good sense, honesty, and justice.  It’s about bad politics.  It should be about transparency and the preservation of our water-ways and water resources, not to mention about finding alternative clean energy sources—other than fracking for natural gas.  But it’s not.  Yet, the negative ecological side effects of fracking are more damaging to both our water and air supplies than the oil companies will ever be willing to admit.  And they have the money to cloud our thinking on the matter—and it does matter, very, very much!

Water is so basic, so fundamental to the vitality of life, to a prosperous lifestyle, and to a thriving community, that there should be no argument, no hesitation whatever, to side with regulation and the establishment of high standards and cautionary measures to protect and maintain our clean water resources.  Yet, we continue to turn a blind eye to the contaminating effects of fracking upon local wells here in the state of Pennsylvania and elsewhere.

There is evidence that roughly 30% to 35% of all fracking drill-sites will be compromised—leak!   This is called seepage, contaminated water seeping into the ground and finding its way to what were once unpolluted water wells.  For every 1000 fracking wells, 300 will seep into and contaminate fresh water sources.  We have thousands and thousands of these oil drilling holes and more being built in this nation every day.  Why are we not alarmed by this!  Because: we presently think that having cheap oil and gas (along with the jobs that these companies supply—for now) is more important than the loss of a few private fresh water wells and ponds.

We are going to regret this.  Water is too precious a resource to lose.  And water is too fluid a substance to guarantee absolute protection from the damage that fracking causes.  If one water resource is contaminated, it is only a matter of time before others will also show signs of contamination.  Water is just that interconnected and that free-flowing, virtually unstoppable.

So, for now, we seem to be saying that oil and natural gas is more valuable than fresh, clean, uncontaminated water.  Just give it time.  Either this generation or the next will soon enough realize the true value of clean water.  But, my guess is, by then, it will be too late.  Someday we will be paying dearly to have access to clean water, much more than we’ve ever had to pay for oil.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Waste Not, Want Not! Let's Resurrect this Old Proverb

Do you remember that proverb?  It’s time to bring it back to life.

We now live in a generation that has not only been enticed and seduced to, but proactively taught and encouraged to, throw away everything.  We now regard just about everything as temporary replaceable throw-away items.  Consumer items are even purposely made to become quickly outdated and passĂ©.

The old norm use to be to preserve what one buys and use it as long as possible—fix, repair, and keep well maintained.  Whether speaking of goods or of money, collecting and saving for the future was the model for good home economics—back in my parent’s day, a generation or two ago.  The new norm has become: Throw it away and buy another, and keep repeating the process.  Spend and expend, that’s the way of it.

Indeed, these days very few items are built to last.  But our landfills are overflowing and beginning to close down.  Seaport city barges are having trouble finding places to dump their waste.  We are running out of dump space.  And yet we still continue to nurture and maintain a kind of “throw-it-away” mentality to satisfy our consumer desires.

Sure, it’s true that we are getting better at recycling.  But it’s slow going.  Suffice it to say that our recycling infrastructure has much to improve.  More than that, our very consumer throw-away mentality needs to change.  We need to re-embrace the wisdom of waste not, want not.  Instead of a use-and-toss mentality we need to reestablish a preserve-and-maintain mindset, especially with respect to the very planet itself.

This is no tree-hugging, nature loving, hippie style sentiment.  It is a reasoned and rationale statement with respect to our need to become more careful and considerate of our resources.  Waste not, want not must apply to our water, oil, land, air, and agricultural uses as well as our objects, things, toys, and gadgets that we consume by the billions each year.  It’s all tied together.

Vendors and manufacturing businesses will continue to sell us throw-away goods as long as we continue to want them and buy them.  We could change this by demanding better.  Tell them that we are willing to spend a little more (no need to get exorbitant here) to purchase longer lasting, more durable, and fixable items.

Might we not tell ourselves that it is worth the inconvenience of not having something so easily tossed into the trash if it’s better for our planet and better for managing our natural resources?  For example, might we not return to using washable and re-usable cotton towels rather than throw away paper-towels for quick cleanup jobs?  Or might we return to using cloth napkins more often than resorting to paper napkins?  Might we not also ask our local community and state government, to make recycling more convenient overall, to make recycling a priority in its waste management services?

There are many ways we can begin to waste not, so as to want not.  But we at least first have to buy into the very principle/proverb that says that this is truly a wise and profitable way to live.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Death and Dying and Letting Go

Nelson Mandela is 94 years old.  He’s lived a long life.  Many would say he’s lived an extraordinary, meaningful and fruitful life.  Given his present illness, is it time to say good-bye?

The same could be said of Billy Graham.  He’s about the same age as Nelson Mandela, going on 94 this year I believe.  So, next time we hear about Billy Graham being hospitalized, for pneumonia or some other illness let’s say, should we also be prepared to let him go and say our good-byes?

When is it time to say good-bye?  How does one “let go” of one’s loved one?  What time is the right time to release them?  In short, how much effort—hospital, medical, and healthcare expenses, time, money, and other material resources—should one apply, in order to keep one’s elderly loved one from dying?

Are such questions too hardhearted and coldly calculating to ask?  Are we to shun such line of questioning as too rude and insensitive to bring up?  Why?

While some family members are willing to accept the inevitable, and wish for no further medical intervention, others are horrified at the very thought of pulling the plug, as they may put it.  For such, accepting Death’s inevitability is taboo, a sacrilege, a coldblooded insensitivity and scandalously hardhearted.

Yet it’s not as if we have conquered Death.  Death attacks everyone—the good, the bad, and the insipidly lukewarm.  And Death prevails.  Death conquers all.  Death has its way with us—always has, and always will.  We are mortals still.   Death is master, so why not be wise about it?

Our advanced medical technology and our strides in the field of medicine haven’t helped.  Rather, it has blurred the lines between life and death to the point that it is more difficult, not less, to “let go” and “say good-bye” to our loved ones.

Question: in the big scheme of things (considering Faith, God, and the hope of Eternal Life beyond the grave), is it always best to do everything to keep a loved one from “passing on”?  Must we necessarily assume that the only and obvious right thing to do is to use every medical means possible, at whatever cost, to whatever extent, to keep Granny, Grandpa, Mom, Dad, etc. alive—even if the effort promises to perhaps only add a few short months, if that, to an already long and well-lived life?

Yes, it’s a fair question to ask.  We need to talk about death.  We need to discuss both how to die peacefully as well as how to let go properly, to be able to say good-bye to those who are dying.   We need to learn to deal with the reality and inevitability of Death with sobriety, wisdom, peace, and unselfish faith.

First, why do I say unselfish faith?  It is now common knowledge that those who have had a near death experience are united in their testimony that they would rather have stayed there, on the other side of death, than to have come back.  For them, coming back was either a matter of concern for those they left behind or needing to complete a task not yet completed.  In short, the witness is that the other side is far better than this side of death.

This concurs with the Biblical testimony, such as when the Apostle Paul says: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where oh Death is your victory?  Where oh Death is your sting?  …but thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  [1 Corinthians 15:54-57.]  Thus, it is often our own selfish personal need, our own unwillingness to say good-bye and “let go” that keeps a loved one from dying peaceably.

Secondly, just about all religions teach us that this life is a journey with a duty.  It is not the end all.  We are only but passing through.  For example, Christianity makes it very clear that we are but aliens and sojourners in this life.  We are told to look for a future home above and beyond: “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is ...Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.  [Colossians 3:1-2.]  Jesus himself said: “I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”  [See John 14:1-4.]

And so, thirdly, we should live lives mindful of the fact that we will indeed come to an end, and therefore should be ready and willing to cross to the other side, when the time is come.  About his own looming death, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day….” [2 Timothy 4:6-8.]

Let us realize that Death is not final.  It is NOT the END!  It is but the entryway to a new wonderful beginning: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away….  ‘Look!  God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them….  He will wipe every tear from their eyes.  There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’”  [See Revelation 21:1-8.]

And finally, know this: When you come face to face with Death, it is really the God of Life you will be facing.  What will you have the God of Life say to you?  May it be as Jesus suggests it ought to be: “Well done, good and faithful servant!  You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things; come and share your master’s happiness!”  [Matthew 25:21.]