Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Rise And The (Ostensible) Fall Of The Religious Conservatives In The U.S.

In 2014, Pew showed that 72% of Americans think religion is losing its influence in public life and that there's been a recent slight uptick of Americans who say religious institutions should express views on political matters (49%). It further showed that a growing minority (32%) say religious institutions should come out and support political candidates, and 59% think it's important for members of Congress to have religious beliefs.  As expected, Republicans lean more towards wanting more religion in public life.

Furthermore, 56% of Americans who think religion is losing its influence think it's a bad thing, and only 12% think it's a good thing. I'm definitely one of those 12 percenters who think it's a bad thing. I think religion needs to recede from American cultural and political influence and the faster that happens the better the nation will be as a whole.

But the main question I want to address is whether or not opinion of the majority of Americans is correct: Is religion losing its influence in cultural and political matters?

To answer that we have to look at the recent presidential election as well as demographic data and polls on social issues. The largest and most powerful religious influence in the US has without a doubt been that of white evangelical Christians. Almost all US presidents have been Protestant with just a few exceptions. Even so, and despite a recent uptick of those who think religious institutions should get more political, data indicates that the influence of this large and mostly Republican demographic is shrinking and losing influence.

When it comes to demographics, the first and most important factor in the decline of white evangelical Christians is that the country is getting less white. The US is only 63% white, down from 69% in 2000, and 80% in 1980. As the white population shrinks, the white evangelical population shrinks. Second, the country is getting less Christian. The US is only 70% Christian, down from 78% in 2007, and 90% in 1963. In just the past 20 years the percentage of both Christians and the religiously affiliated began to rapidly decline. And just like with the white population, as the Christian population shrinks, the white evangelical population shrinks—along with their influence. Protestants now make up less than half (46%) the US population. Thirdly, there is a large generational gap with respect to Christian religiosity indicating what's to come. Only 56% of millennials are Christian, whereas 70% of generation X, and 78% of baby boomers are Christian.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Little "g"

A few years ago I started spelling god with a little g instead of the traditional "God" with a capital G. I was inspired by Christopher Hitches who spelled god with a little g in his book god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everythingwhich even used the lower case g on its cover.  "I don't capitalize my concepts," Hitch wrote.

Like Hitch, I never really thought of "God" as a proper name, but more like a noun, like "man" or "lion." It always seemed to be more of a type of being. That's why I don't like capitalizing the word "god." However, when I refer to a specific god by name, like Yahweh, or Mazda, or Odin, or Zeus, I will capitalize it as I capitalize all names.

Speaking of capitalizing the names of gods, it reminds me of that one god who did sign his name with a capital G:

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Minimal Jesus Myth Theory - What Is It?

Minimal mythcism, sometimes called the minimal mythicist theory or the minimal Jesus myth theory, that people like Richard Carrier argue for goes as follows [1]:

  1. At the origin on Christianity, Jesus Christ was thought to be a celestial deity much like any other.
  2. Like many other celestial deities, this Jesus 'communicated' with his subjects only through dreams, visions and other forms of divine inspiration (such as prophesy, past and present).
  3. Like some other celestial deities, the Jesus was originally believed to have endured an ordeal of incarnation, death, burial and resurrection in a supernatural realm.
  4. As for many other celestial deities, an allegorical story of this same Jesus was then composed and told within the sacred community, which then placed him on earth, in history, as a divine man, with an earthly family, companions, and enemies, complete with deeds and sayings, and an earthly depiction of his ordeals.
  5. Subsequent communities of worshipers believed (or at least taught) that this invented sacred story was real (and either not allegorical or only 'additionally' allegorical).

As such, it's important to know what minimal Jesus mythicism is and is not because there's a lot of kooks out there, especially on the internet, proposing preposterous ideas that are backed up by no evidence or horrible scholarship, and it tends to drown out the legitimate arguments like Carrier's. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

My 1 Year Anniversary As A Vegetarian

This past August I reached my one year anniversary of becoming a vegetarian. I've only broken my vow not to eat any meat a few times: once on Thanksgiving, twice when I was at a restaurant that only served meat and I had a tuna melt, and one other time when I was starving and was offered beef dumplings and I just ate it. Other than that it's been no meat or fish for over a year.

I'm often asked why I'm a vegetarian by people I know and I always relish in the opportunity to explain why. There are two main reasons why I've given up eating meat and fish.

First is the moral argument. I do not want to support an industry, whether it's at the industrial scale or not, that kills animals and often tortures them in horrible living conditions. By not eating meat and encouraging others to do so, I will help reduce demand and that will hopefully shrink the industry as a whole, with the goal of putting it out of business entirely. A moral society simply cannot support the systematic torture and death of sentient animals for our pleasure.

The second reason is the sustainability argument. Animal agriculture is responsible for 91% of the amazon rain forest destruction, 51% of global greenhouse emissions are due to livestock and their byproducts, three out of four of the world's fisheries are exploited, and for every one pound of fish caught five pounds of marine animals are unintentionally caught and killed as by-kill. In short, an ever increasing population of humans eating meat is environmentally unsustainable. A vegetarian or vegan lifestyle is necessary.

So for these two primary reasons I have given up eating meat and fish, and I can tell you, I definitely feel better and more ethical as a person after doing so. I'm am trying to walk the walk on ethics, and not just talk the talk, but I'd be a liar if I said it was easy.

Unfortunately, I read recently that about 86% of vegetarians eventually go back to eating meat. That means I'm statistically likely to go back to eating meat at some point in my future. Maintaining a vegetarian lifestyle is really hard. There are synthetic meats that are on the horizon, that may be economically viable in the next 10 years. If they can take off, I will certainly consider eating their meat. I'm not a vegetarian because I don't like the taste of meat. I love the taste of meat. If I could eat meat without animals being tortured and killed and without the negative environmental impact, I would. Synthetic meat could make this possible. It could also put the existing animal agricultural industry out of business through market competition. But we'll have to see what happens.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Sean Carroll's 10 Suggestions

Since naturalists aren't particularly fond of commandments, Sean Carroll offers 10 suggestions in his recent book, The Big Picture, "that might be useful to keep in mind as we shape and experience our own ways of valuing and caring about our lives."

  1. Life Isn't Forever
  2. Desire Is Built into Life
  3. What Matters Is What Matters to People
  4. We Can Always Do Better
  5. It Pays to Listen
  6. There Is No Natural Way to Be
  7. It Takes All Kinds
  8. The Universe Is in Our Hands
  9. We Can Do Better Than Happiness
  10. Reality Guides Us

No list of suggestions (or commandments) like this can go without explanation, but if you want to read his explanations for his suggestions, I highly recommend you read his book if you haven't already:


On Libertarianism

Something that I don't often write about is political libertarianism. I have a problem with it. I have a problem with the view that the free market approach works everywhere. But in order to talk about this stuff, one needs to bring in the fields of political philosophy and economics that I am much less acquainted with than with the relevant fields needed to have the religion debate.

In political philosophy, one of the major questions is "what is the purpose of government?" It's an interesting question few of us ask ourselves. We tend to grow up in cultures where government exists and its role is taken for granted. The US was founded by rebels who broke away from a theocratic king and set up a secular democracy. The preamble of the US Constitution reads that its purpose was "to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity". It was the first secular democracy in the world and quite revolutionary.

The purpose of the newly independent US government seemed quite clear. Or was it? What does it mean to "promote the general Welfare?" Libertarians generally believe that the purpose of government is to protect the rights of the citizens and perform a few basic functions like military, police, and the law: The military to protect the country from all enemies foreign and domestic, the police to provide security internally, and the law to provide judges and courts for legal matters. Other than that, most, if not all other areas of society will be handled by the private sector.

Libertarians disagree over exactly how far government should extend beyond the police, military, and the law. They also disagree on taxes. Some support a flat tax, others support no taxation at all and consider any form of taxation the moral equivalent of stealing. People would instead voluntarily donate money to the government in such a system. Voluntaryism, the philosophy that forms of human association should be voluntary is big among the "taxation is theft" wing of libertarians.

I've challenged many libertarians I know on whether an all voluntary taxation system would actually be able to pay for the government they think should exist and the answers I get don't sound too confident. I've asked them what should be done if voluntary tax donations weren't enough to cover the costs of the government functions, like for example, the police to secure the safety of the community, and I haven't gotten a good answer yet. Voluntaryism would also allow free riders to game the system. If your neighbors are voluntarily paying for the police and you're not, you're still going to get the same police protection they paid for. Also, who would build and maintain the roads, bridges, and tunnels? Would the private sector really be able to handle this with the level of coverage government could?

Libertarians are very anti-utilitarian. They are not focused on the end result, but rather the principle being held. So if an all voluntary taxation system failed to pay for the needs of the small libertarian government and it resulted in massive societal problems, like rising crime and civil unrest because of the lack of paid police officers, then so be it. All that matters is that government didn't tax, or "steal" anyone's earnings.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Does General Relativity Entail Eternalism?

Recently, a scientist by the name of Gustavo E. Romero wrote a paper where he gives an argument from General Relativity in favor of eternalism. The paper, called On the ontology of spacetime, offers a simple argument for eternalism based on the existence of gravitational waves:

P1. There are gravitational waves.
P2. Gravitational waves have non-zero Weyl curvature.
P3. Non-zero Weyl curvature is only possible in 4 or more dimensions.
P4. Presentism is incompatible with a 4 dimensional world.
Then, presentism is false.

A little less than a year ago gravitational waves were empirically verified by two teams of scientists in two independent tests in the US. So premise 1 is true. (At the time Romero wrote his paper, gravitational waves had not yet been confirmed; now they have.) The rest of the argument is a bit technical, but Romero writes:

Premises P2 and P3 are necessarily true. Gravitational waves propagate in empty space, where the Einstein’s field equations are reduced to: 
Rab = 0. 
This expression means that the 10 coefficients of the Ricci tensor are identically null. But the full Riemann tensor3 has 20 independent coefficients since is a rank 4 tensor. The remaining 10 components are expressed by the Weyl tensor. Then, since the gravitational waves are disturbances in the curvature, the Weyl tensor must be non-zero in their presence. If the dimensionality of the world were 3, as proposed by the presentists, the Riemann tensor would have only 6 independent components, and since in 3 dimensions the Einstein’s equations in vacuum are reduced to 6, the Weyl tensor must vanish. Only in 4 or more dimensions gravity can propagate through empty spacetime (see Hobson et al. 2006, p.184, and Romero and Vila 2014, p. 19). 

It's an interesting argument using General Relativity, instead of Special Relativity—which is most often used, to make an argument for eternalism. Some have argued that General Relativity argues against eternalism, and this would seem to challenge that view. It further adds to the case that physics supports eternalism and negates presentism, and I think we should take the findings from science to inform our worldviews seriously.

Happy Labor Day weekend!


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