Thursday, February 23, 2017

Why It Matters That the First Lady Recited the Lord's Prayer at a Presidential Event


First Lady Melania Trump recited the Lord's Prayer at a rally held by her husband.

This event was billed as a re-election (!) campaign event, one month into Pres. Trump's first term.  Therefore, it does not come under some of the same restrictions that an official government event does.  And the First Lady is not a government official, in any case - almost nothing she does is restricted by government ethics.

My concern is not that the separation of church and state was violated.

Rather, I am troubled by the regression of Republican politicians to a solely Christian expression of public faith.

One of the great achievements after World War II was to become a nation that embraced all people of faith, and no faith.  Robert Bellah's famous essay on "Civil Religion in America" in the mid-1960s noted that, while presidents routinely invoked God in their inaugural addresses, they did not name Jesus.  Our civic culture explicitly included Catholics and Jews, along with Protestants, in the "banquet religions" of ordinary American life after the war.  After 9/11, President George W. Bush pointedly included Muslims in the faiths he invoked in naming who is included in America.

Lately, though, Republican political ritual has been content to invoke explicitly Christian statements of faith - and leave it at that, without further inclusions.

White Christian nationalism is the most likely source of, and route to, fascism in this country.  Our political culture has evolved past being exclusively Christian in order to live up to both of our mottos - E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust.  We must not revert to religious exclusion.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why We Should All Think Like Scientists

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.


Jonathan Haidt, a leader in positive psychology, emphasizes that we human beings are not selfish individuals, but a groupish social species. It is overwhelmingly a good thing that we are attached to our groups.  We try to be loyal to the group, and believe what it believes.


The bad thing that can happen from our groupishness, though, is that we tend to seek evidence that supports what the group already believes, and reject evidence which contradicts this belief.  We have a strong "confirmation bias." This bias is not simply a feature of some people's individual psychology, but of everyone's natural (and mostly admirable) tendency to be loyal to our group. Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, writes "For non-scientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe."

Science, by contrast, is the honest search for truth.  It is a hard discipline of reason and of moral candor.  All of us act like scientists in this regard sometimes.  And professional scientists do not always live up the high standards of science, even in their scientific work.

The great virtue of thinking like a scientist, a virtue we can all follow, is the ability to steel ourselves to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if that means rejecting a cherished belief of our group. This is our best defense, as individuals, as groups, and as society as a whole, against false beliefs and the hopeless conflicts they engender.

Truth is in order to goodness, and thus to happiness.









Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Feelings Toward Muslims Are Warming


Pew reports some unexpected good news:  the feeling of Americans in general toward all religious groups have improved since 2014.

Even Muslims, the least-liked religious group, rose on the "feeling thermometer" from an unfriendly 40 (out of 100) to 48.

The only group whose rating did not change were evangelical Christians, who stayed at 61.

The rating of Muslims rose among both Democrats and Republicans.  The two parties differ, though, in how highly they rate Muslims: Democrats today rating them 52, while Republicans rate Muslims 39 on the feeling thermometer.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Valentine's Day Is a Useful - and Much Used - Ritual for Expressing Happiness in Love

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.


Valentine's Day is a structured ritual for expressing happiness to, and with, our loved ones.  A study of 4.6 million tweets over several years found a large spike of happiness tweets each February 14 - just below Christmas as a day for expressing happiness.

Some people think having a structured ritual invalidates expressions of love. I think, though, that getting people to articulate what they are, in fact, already feeling is a good thing.  It is, especially valuable to have a reason, and a way, for men to express -- by action and words (tweets?) -- their love for their spouses and romantic partners.




I can take or leave the more commercial elements - candy, flowers, dinner out.  Whether those particular actions are living or stilted depends on the couple.  But I do think it is a good thing to have periodic reminders to express to your mate, and to the world, your love.





Sunday, February 12, 2017

In Studying the Virtues, Start With Courage


Perhaps courage is the easiest cardinal virtue to study because it is the lowest and most widespread. Plato says it is the virtue we share with animals.

You do not have to master all the higher virtues in order to understand this one.

This is helpful in thinking about how to study what is involved in building up a virtuous society.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Strongmen Are What Make the World a Dangerous Place


There is a good market right now for fear entrepreneurs who sell the idea that the world is a dangerous place.  There are always such nostrums on the market - and politicians ready to cash in.  For most of the last three generations since World War II the forces of order have kept the fear mongers and would-be strongmen in check.

But now the last generation to remember the rise of the strongmen is nearly gone.  Younger people take orderly institutions for granted.  They do not see that the rule of law is fragile, even in old republics like ours.  The permanently fearful minority allies with the short-term partisans, and the next thing you know we have elected a strongman.

All across the democratic world, right-wing nationalists challenge the governments which have made the world safer since VJ Day. All across the Muslim world, right-wing nationalists launch terror attacks on the democratic nations that keep invading them, while threatening their local authoritarian governments who make peace with the invaders.

When the strongmen come to power, the structural logic of their ideology makes them push for more danger and more war as proof that they were right about the world being dangerous.  And the more danger they create, they more they can suspend normal checks and balances and consolidate all power in themselves.

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Measles Eradicated in the Americas

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.

The global effort to eradicate disease is one of the most powerful arguments that things are getting better.

Smallpox has been wiped out.  Polio is on the verge, if not already eradicated.

And now we get word that measles has been eradicated in the wild in the Western Hemisphere. There are still occasional outbreaks, but they come from outside.

There is a new danger now from the people who do not vaccinate their children, in the foolish belief that the vaccines themselves cause autism.  These folks, as well as some anti-vaccine faith healing groups, endanger us all by lowering our "herd immunity."

Nonetheless, the sustained and coordinated effort of international health organizations, governments, charities, and local public health workers has achieved this great good for our part of the world.