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Come Reason's Apologetics Notes blog will highlight various news stories or current events and seek to explore them from a thoughtful Christian perspective. Less formal and shorter than the www.comereason.org Web site articles, we hope to give readers points to reflect on concerning topics of the day.

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Thursday, December 17, 2020

Christmas Greetings, BLM, and Engaging Others


Does it bother you if a store clerk wishes you “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? I guess it could depend on the context. If I was purchasing, say, Channukah candles then the clerk’s salutation would probably be seen as appropriate. However, what if it was just my Saturday grocery run? Should Merry Christmas be avoided because it could possibly cause offense to some people?

As our society has become less Christian and more politically correct, some argue there has been a push to wish everyone happy holidays as a safeguard against offending anyone. But I don’t see such a move as effective. Indeed, sometimes they have consequences opposing their intended effect.

Take for example the recent statement by Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. After a video of President Trump wishing Georgia rally attendees a merry Christmas and encouraging the greeting’s use, Nessel took him to task on Twitter for the remark, writing:

I remember the first time I was at a store with my son and an employee said “Merry Christmas” to us. My son looked devastated as asked “Are we the only people who don’t celebrate Christmas?” I answered “No, and we are just as American as everyone else.” Glad @JoeBiden knows that.

Various conservative outlets jumped on the tweet, one that Nessel has since deleted. The Daily Wire lead with the headline “Michigan AG Slams People Wishing ‘Merry Christmas’ After Trump Warning.”1 Breitbart wrote “Michigan AG Dana Nessel Launches “2020’s War on ‘Christmas’.”2 It strikes most people that taking umbrage at another person wishing you Merry Christmas is silly. Her denouncing those who would draw upon a traditional greeting mentioning a Christian holiday celebrated by the vast majority of people in the country (be they Christians, atheists, and even some of other faiths) feels more than insensitive. It feels like an attack.

After deleting the original tweet, Nessel sought to justify her stance with this comment that is still available online:

Saying “Happy Holidays” this time of year does not denigrate Christianity. It simply acknowledges and respects the great diversity of our nation and includes each and everyone of us who call ourselves proud Americans.

Is this true? Her claim is worth investigating and thinking about this carefully can help shift through some of the more divisive rhetoric that’s been weaponized this year. It may even help Christians better their witnessing efforts.

The Ugliness of Sloganeering Salutations

While the Coronavirus pandemic may be the most top-of-mind crisis of 2020, the tensions over race and law enforcement are certainly in a close running. Part of the fallout from these events was the elevation of the slogan Black Lives Matter. Its originators, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors saw the slogan as “A call to action, to make sure we are creating a world where black lives really do matter.”3 As the racial tensions and civic unrest elevated over this summer, the phrase morphed from a simply rally cry to a creed and a political movement. Some of the more radical activists began demanding people speak the phrase to show they are not racists. Garza and Cullors founded the Black Lies Matter Global Network Foundation and their web site began promoting far-left positions. She stated in a 2015 interview, “I think, is that we actually do have an ideological frame. Myself and Alicia in particular are trained organizers. We are trained Marxists.”4

People, not surprisingly, reacted against the slogan. Some didn’t like the idea that they must signal their virtuosity by saying the phrase. Others didn’t want to identify themselves with the radical politics of the movement. Still others felt that the phrase didn’t tell the whole story. A counter-slogan of All Lives Matter began to crescendo in response to the ubiquity of Black Lives Matter.

That, in turn, caused a similar backlash. Blacks felt that such a phrase diminished the point they were trying to make. The common analogy they offer is to picture yourself at the doctor’s office after you smashed your finger with a hammer. When he asks “which finger should I treat?” you would never respond with “Oh, doc, ALL finger matter!” Of course they all do, but the one that’s hurting needs the attention now.

 Good Housekeeping even ran an article stating that it’s problematic to say “All Lives Matter”:

While the intention of the phrase "All Lives Matter" may be to put everyone’s life on equal footing and convey a sense of unity, responding "All Lives Matter" to "Black Lives Matter" is actually more divisive than unifying. That's because it discounts and diminishes the focus on the violence and discrimination Black individuals face every day in this country.5

Switching from Slogans to Meaningful Conversation

This reaction to the reaction brings me back to my opening example. Let’s apply Nessel’s statement to the BLM slogan controversy. Without doing damage to her meaning, I can simply replace two terms and see if her argument is still appropriate:

Saying “All Lives Matter” this time of year does not denigrate black people. It simply acknowledges and respects the great diversity of our nation and includes each and everyone of us who call ourselves proud Americans.

Interestingly, there are a lot of people that would agree with Nessel’s original statement, but object to the revision and there are just as many on the other side of the political fence who would agree to the revision but reject the original! Yet, in both we have a group that offers a phrase of identity (either “Black Lives Matter” or “Merry Christmas”), a group that feels it has been in some way disparaged (Blacks or Christians), and a more encompassing category phrase (“Happy Holidays” or “All Lives Matter”) that becomes the substitute. If the logic is sound, it seems it should hold true in both sets of circumstances. So, an organization that instructs its employees not to say “Merry Christmas” but only “Happy Holidays” may be as offensive to Christians as hearing “all lives matter” as a retort to “Black Lives Matter.” 

However, there is a caveat because the phrase Black Lives Matter is also the name of an organization that promotes values antithetical to Christian beliefs. If I were to use the phrase Black Lives Matter, would I also be giving undo credibility or endorsement to the organization’s political stance? Even if I mean to affirm the broad concept, how do I know that’s what those who hear or read my reply will not assume I accept those stances? In our social media/soundbite world, being misunderstood is too common place and sloganeering on either side can lead to a breakdown in communication instead of a path to meaningful conversation.

If someone askes me if I think black lives matter, I usually respond with “I’ll go further than that. There are a lot of things that matter. Money matters. I say black lives have inestimable worth.”

Therefore, let me offer this alternative. If someone askes me if I think black lives matter, I usually respond with “I’ll go further than that. There are a lot of things that matter. Money matters. I say black lives have inestimable worth.” In using this reply I can accomplish three things: 1) I can affirm the real pain those in the black community feel, 2) I can avoid any misunderstandings of tying myself to a political stance or movement, and 3) I can stimulate additional conversation. It allows me to talk about the imago Dei and why human beings carry intrinsic value. It opens the door to evangelism opportunities.

Similarly, don’t wait for a clerk to wish you happy holidays. When you fist step up to the counter, you can wish them a merry Christmas. You can also ask them “why do you think this particular holiday draws so much more attention than any other? What is so special about Christmas?” By moving beyond slogans, we can communicate better, be understood more clearly, and inspire others to think more deeply. That would make Christmas the happiest of holidays.

References

1. Hank Berrien. “Michigan AG Slams People Wishing 'Merry Christmas' After Trump Warning.” The Daily Wire, The Daily Wire, 7 Dec. 2020, www.dailywire.com/news/michigan-ag-slams-people-wishing-merry-christmas-after-trump-warning.
2. John Nolte. “Nolte: Michigan AG Dana Nessel Launches 2020's War on 'Christmas'.” Breitbart, Breitbart, 7 Dec. 2020, www.breitbart.com/politics/2020/12/07/nolte-michigan-ag-dana-nessel-launches-2020s-war-christmas/.
3. Elizabeth Day. “#BlackLivesMatter: the Birth of a New Civil Rights Movement.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 19 July 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/19/blacklivesmatter-birth-civil-rights-movement.
4. Jared Ball. “A Short History of Black Lives Matter.” The Real News Network, The Real News Network, 23 July 2015, https://therealnews.com/pcullors0722blacklives
5. Lizz Schumer. “Saying That ‘Black Lives Matter’ Doesn't Mean That Other Lives Do Not.” Good Housekeeping, Hearst Magazine Media, Inc., 5 June 2020, www.goodhousekeeping.com/life/a32745051/what-black-lives-matter-means /.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

How COVID-19 Shows Utilitarianism's Big Flaw


What grounds morality? We all talk about whether actions are right or wrong, but what is it that makes something right or wrong to begin with? Christianity has traditionally held that goodness or rightness have their origin in God and he has revealed that to us. Atheists, on the other hand, cannot ground moral values in God. Yet, most atheists will say that morality is real. They believe that there are certain duties and obligations to which we should all adhere, such as holding the value of life above economic loss.

So, how do they ground morality?

The question isn’t as abstract as it may at first seem. As the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent shutdown of the economy have thrown real questions of morality into public discussion, one can quickly see grounding morality in something other than God creates real problems in the real world.

One of the more popular ways attempted to ground morality apart from God is to hold to a moral framework known as utilitarianism. Birthed by early 19th century thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, utilitarianism is an "ethical doctrine that an action is right if, and only if, it promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people."1 What that means is one can define right and wrong by whether the action will produce the greatest level of happiness for most people in a specific situation.

I want to be clear here. When utilitarians talk about the word "happiness" or "pleasure," they aren’t meaning some immediate, shallow feeling of fun. Certainly, it’s more fun for kids to eat cake rather than vegetables or go and play than go to school. However, utilitarians would know that such short-term pleasures would cause greater pain in the future when the child is grown, sickly, and unemployable. Still, utilitarianism holds that what we call good is what is pleasurable, and therefore, after one weighs all factors, whatever produces the most pleasure/happiness for the most people is by definition good.

COVID-19 and "Ageism"

At first glance, utilitarianism seems common-sensical. Advancing happiness while reducing pain is a grid against which we make decisions all the time. However, the devil is always in the details, and real-life situations can underscore utilitarianism’s fatal flaw.

A recent Los Angeles Times column by Steve Lopez is a case in point.

Lopez recently published a commentary entitled, "Time for seniors to roll over and die so younger generations can get back to work? Not so fast." It opens with this:
I’ve got a Medicare card in my wallet and a target on my back.

"Sacrifice the weak, reopen," said a protest sign in Tennessee.

In Antioch, next door to the Bay Area town I grew up in, a planning commissioner said that "the sick, the old, the injured," along with the homeless, should be left to die from COVID-19 and ease the burden on society.

Even the 70-year-old lieutenant governor of Texas offered himself up as a sacrificial lamb, saying if more people have to die to save the economy for future generations, "I’m all in."2
Lopez goes on to note that the argue that "ageism is running amok" and how he believes "those who are saying we have to choose between returning to work and saving lives — as if we can’t do both — are in a minority" even though he admits "a majority of victims [are] up there in years."

Wrong is Defined as Right

I’m sure most people would side with Lopez that just because someone is in the final decades of life des not mean they are any less valuable than those who are in their thirties or forties. But that’s exactly the rub. You see, utilitarianism defines the good as the greatest happiness for the greatest number and which ever way one slices it, forcing millions and millions of younger people to lose employment, miss school, lose their life savings by closing their businesses, damage the next untold number of years of their future through the worst economic hardship since the Great Depression so the elderly can survive doesn’t measure up.

The fact is, if utilitarianism is true, then what we are doing to protect the elderly and frail among us would be defined as evil. It is morally wrong to intentionally not seek out the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number. Remember, this concept is the baseline for determining what is classified as moral or immoral. Society suffering for the sake of the few is always immoral in a utilitarian framework.

Of course, like Lopez, I don’t think most people would agree that the elderly should be expendable because of the pain inflicted on the many. In fact, seeking the pleasure of the masses at the expense of the frail, all other things being equal, is immoral. That means one cannot ground their moral values in utilitarianism since it can get morality exactly backwards, calling evil good and good evil. And without utilitarianism to fall back on, anyone who holds morality is real and objective will have a difficult time being consistent unless the foundation of right and wrong is found in God himself.

References

1. Ed. L. Miller. Questions That Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy. 4th Ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1996.447.
2. Steve Lopez. "Time for seniors to roll over and die so younger generations can get back to work? Not so fast." Los Angeles Times. May 6, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-05-06/time-for-seniors-to

Thursday, April 30, 2020

A Rational Approach to COVID-19 (video)



As we enter the second month of shelter-in-place, people are asking "Just how dangerous is the coronavirus really?" In this interview, Lenny talks with Dr. AJ Roberts, who worked at the NIH for three years on the first SARS-coronavirus, to get clarity on what the virus is, just how dangerous it can be, and what we will be facing now that the initial wave of infections has crested.

For more articles, podcasts, and teachings on this subject, follow us online: http://www.comereason.org http://twitter.com/comereason https://www.facebook.com/comeletusreason To follow AJ, visit facebook.com/AJRobertsrtb/ or follow her on Twitter at @rtb_ajroberts


Thursday, April 09, 2020

Coronavirus and Missing Other Souls


One of the more interesting byproducts of the sheltering laws during the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic is how much it underscores the fact we are not simply our bodies. I know that on its face this may seem counter intuitive, but let's think about our situation and what we are learning through our collective ordeal.

For weeks now, all the reporting on coronavirus and its ramifications have been from primarily a materialist point of view. Essential services have been defined to include bodily health, shelter, and transportation areas—all with the goal of preserving our physical selves. In my state of California, marijuana shops are classified as essential while churches are not.

Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that churches should be meeting together. I think in light of the dangers of contagion, restricting groups temporarily is prudent and biblical. (Remember, God took Jewish temple worship away from his people for seventy years while they were captives in Babylon.) My observations are more focused on how little consideration the spiritual costs have received during the whole crisis. News reports hunt down experts in biology, medicine, and epidemiology to update us on how to protect our bodies, but how many give equal time to faith leaders for advice on bolstering the spiritual health of those cloistered at home?

Isolation and Intimacy

Spiritual health is an essential aspect of being human, though. The interesting thing is that as our social distancing and sheltering-in-place stretch from a couple of weeks into months, we are realizing more and more how much it does. While churches can hold virtual services, everyone feels how incomplete such electronically simulated gatherings are. One of the reasons we need to assemble together physically (Heb. 10:25) is because it helps us relate to one another. That difference is becoming more and more apparent as we are limited to pictures instead of proximity. I'd rather have my family sitting in the same room with me without a lot of conversation than having Zoom engagements sans intimacy.

But just what is it that makes physical proximity more meaningful than virtual proximity? The difference is hard to explain in a purely materialist worldview. If all we are can be reduced to chemical reactions, then a virtual version of yourself should be just as good as the real thing. The same physical senses of sight and sound are engaged whether you see someone in front of you or on a screen. Sure, we cannot touch or smell others (perhaps the latter is a good thing!), but why is it more satisfying to have your friend from church sitting across from you rather than on a computer monitor? You're not touching in either instance.

Soulish Experiences

There seems to be a shared aspect of who we are spiritually when we come together in one space. That's why the Christian concept of koinonia or fellowship played such a vital role in the church's formation. Acts 2:42 tells us this was a doctrine of the church, rooted in the Apostles themselves. In John 4:24, Jesus instructs how since God is spirit, our worship must be based not in our physical behavior but in our spirit, our very essence. The Psalms also command us to praise God together with one voice (Psa. 47 & 95), and Paul echoes this in 1 Corinthians 14:26 and Ephesians 5:18-19. There is a unique aspect to us being together that cannot be replicated separately, as our souls are aligned towards the one true God and to the building up of each other.

One of the ways to realize the value of something is to make it scarce. If we are simply bodies, then our electronic communication channels should be as valuable as being close to one another. But we know that isn't true. We can feel there's something missing, a piece of reality that isn't measurable by sight or sound, or even touch or smell. There's the presence of individuals in one's life that is real and missing. I think as our proximity to one another becomes scarcer, we'll feel our need for soulish interactions will become more acute. Human beings are both body and soul. While screens can provide a replication of our bodies for one another, it cannot replicate that immaterial bonding between our souls. Our souls need to be in contact with one another, and it's this missing element we will need to address.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

What to Make of the Mass Shooting Epidemic



What should we think about the increase in mass-shootings that have been plaguing the United States? Most recently, three different young men opened fire on the public over the course of one week in Gilroy, California; El Paso, Texas; and Dayton, Ohio. The shock and grief of these tragedies cannot be understated.

In a recent Los Angeles Times article, criminologists Jillian Peterson and James Densley laid out four consistent features common to nearly all mass shooters.1 They are:
  1. Each had experienced early childhood trauma and exposure to violence at a young age. This includes parental abuse, suicide, domestic violence and bullying.
  2. Each experienced an identifiable crisis point, making them angry or depressed, prior to the shooting.
  3. Each studied other shooters and sought validation or notoriety for their motives, many times through social media.
  4. All had the means to carry out their plans.
While much of the political and media are focused on one aspect of the fourth point, that is  gun control legislation, I think the first three areas need more attention, as they center on the foundational aspects of society: family, community, and a shared set of virtues.

Unraveling the Family

The primary building block of any society is the family. Biology dictated that a man and a woman were joined together as only that coupling can produce children. Offspring then reinforce the connection of the man and woman when each seeks their progeny’s protection and welfare.

Today, things have changed. Marriage is less about what happens to future generations than about self-fulfillment. Traditional motherhood roles are dismissed as backwards and stifling. Children are looked upon more as the latest accessory. The trends in intentional single mothers and homosexual couples using sperm donors or surrogacy to make babies exemplifies this attitude.

Losing Real Community

Humans seek community. We’re hard-wired as communal beings, sharing life and experiences with others who can support and reinforce one another physically, emotionally, and spiritually. But building a true community requires real-life, face-to-face interactions over an extended period of time. Long-term interactions with others teach you about the imperfections of people and how we can love them anyway. It is sharing experiences over time that deepens our relationships with one another, and it is the relationships that hold true meaning.

Our society today is speeding in the opposite direction. The hyper-individualism that our current culture celebrates is antithetical to community-building. Social media gives one the illusion of connectedness, but without all the messy and time-consuming face-to-face stuff.

Churches used to be the center of community-building. Many still function that way, but they are not valued as such by the larger culture anymore. It’s no wonder the U.S. has become a nation of lonely people and it’s no surprise that both suicide and drug addiction are becoming epidemics.

Abandoning Virtue

In his book Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, Roger Scruton defines civilization as “a social entity that manifests religious, political, legal, and customary uniformity over an extended period, and which confers on its members the benefits of socially accumulated knowledge.”2 But what if a society abandoned the idea that socially accumulated knowledge is real knowledge? If virtue and morality are relative instead of absolute, then they don’t qualify as knowledge and they certainly cannot be passed down! Everyone has to find the truth for themselves.

We are losing the benefits of our former shared Judeo-Christian civilization because we are abandoning absolute morality. Without a foundational baseline, college students experience higher rates of sexual assaults even while its students hold that rape can be justified! Pitirim Sorokin rightly predicted that a culture driven by feelings instead of an understanding of innate truths will ultimately fall apart.

Adding in the Catalyst

Realize I am not saying that everyone in our cultural climate is going to become a mass shooter. I don’t believe that any more than I believe everyone is going to become a rapist. But, when the constraints that make killing or rape much more difficult are taken away, then it shouldn’t be a surprise to see more of those actions.

As a nerdy kid, I remember being excited when I stumbled upon the chemical elements needed to make nitroglycerin: you just combine nitric acid and glycerol. However, if you were to somehow be able to acquire nitric acid and then pour both chemicals in a flask directly, it wouldn’t do much. Like many chemical reactions, you need another ingredient that kicks the whole thing into gear; you need a catalyst. The catalyst for nitroglycerin is sulfuric acid. The sulfuric acid allows the proper chemical reactions to take place so the nitric acid molecules can bond properly with the glycerin.

Because the United States is a gun culture, mass shooters have access to guns. But that alone doesn’t make one a mass shooter. The other three ingredients need to be there, too. In prior generations, more people owned guns as a percentage of the population. The Washington Post reports that gun ownership is actually at a 40-year low. It is society that’s changed and the results have been explosive, to say the least.

References

1 Jillian Peterson and James Densley. “Op-Ed: We Have Studied Every Mass Shooting since 1966. Here's What We've Learned about the Shooters.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 4 Aug. 2019, www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2019-08-04/el-paso-dayton-gilroy-mass-shooters-data.
2 Roger Scruton. Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, New York: Encounter Books, 2007. 2.
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