Sunday, April 16, 2017

An Easter Message

Happy Easter, everybody, believer and skeptic alike. To Christians, Easter is a time to proclaim the victory of specific doctrinal beliefs. To those of us of a more general spirituality, it is a time to reaffirm the (at least temporary) victory of life over death.

But let me tell you one thing the Easter story is not. It is not a time to proclaim the unassailable rectitude of the Republican Party. If Jesus rose, it was His victory, not that of Republicans.

This seems so obvious that you may wonder why I need to say it. Let me tell you a memory from about 1973. I was a high school kid reading the Letters to the Editor section of the Fresno Bee newspaper. One letter told the story of how the crowds praised Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, and within a few days they were calling for His death. The writer then drew a comparison between Jesus and Richard Nixon. Americans, the writer said, praised Nixon when he won his 1972 election as president. Then, within a little more than a year, they were turning against him because of the Watergate scandal. The writer said that people turning against Nixon was just as unreasonable and unholy as people turning against Jesus.

This really happened. You can’t make stuff like this up.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Great Leap Backward

I just posted an essay similar to this on my other blog but in this one I say a little more about the religious aspect of it.

Donald Trump has promised to make America great again. He is doing this in several ways. He just announced a funding cut (over a billion dollars) to the National Institutes of Health. We can go back to the days when if you get sick, the doctors won’t know what to do, and you can just go home and die.

Another way Trump is making America great again is by sending us back several decades to the time when all of our energy requirements come from coal and oil. I am sure that the massive campaign contributions from coal and oil companies is simply a coincidence. Most industry and most people want clean energy, but the coal and oil companies do not. America is one of the leaders in developing new clean energy technology. This is about to end, and doesn’t China know it. China is actually happy about Trump’s decision because it means that China will become the supreme leader in the energy of the future. It is almost like a president saying that we will resist this new internal combustion technology and focus our regulations to ensure that horses continue to dominate our transportation sector.

But clean energy technology has an irreversible momentum. There is no way to stop it, no matter how much Trump tells us that solar and wind energy are from the Devil. People want it, industry will continue to invest in it despite federal government threats. In addition to being good for the Earth, it is superior technology. This point was made in an articlepublished in Science by someone you’ve all heard of.

The climate denialists—among whom there are very few scientists—will now have a meeting at which they will proclaim that all scientists who study global warming are traitors to America. The meeting will be chaired by Texas Republican representative Lamar Smith, who is famous for having said that he saw no evidence for global warming. The democratic staffers piled up papers of evidence in front of him, but he didn’t even look in that direction, so he still has not seen the evidence.

Just about the only scientist they can find to defend the denialist theory is John Christy, an atmospheric scientist from the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Christy has made it clear that his opposition to global warming science is based on his reading of the Bible—which, by the way, he is reading incorrectly. He bases his entire science on his own opinions about what the Bible means, not even on what it says. Fundamentalists like Christy and Sen. Jim Inhofe think that their interpretations of the Bible are without the possibility of error. They put themselves in the place of God, if there is one.

Here is a report from Science magazine about this upcoming meeting.

Thank you, President Trump, for leading us boldly into the twentieth century. Next up, the nineteenth century!

Friday, March 3, 2017

Consider the Lilies

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus, many of which were later condensed into a single Sermon on the Mount, is to “Consider the lilies of the field.” The lilies to which he referred were the wildflowers that blanketed the Galilean hillsides briefly in the early spring, before withering away in the summer—just as they still do in the Middle East and other similar climates such as that of California. As a botanist, I really like this passage. Many of these spring wildflowers are, in fact, lilies.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then forget about them, or to walk past them while you are looking at a scroll or a cell phone. You have to stop and look carefully at them. They are so small that you will probably have to get down on your knees to do it. You will have to pull one of them apart to see the full glory of their structure hidden inside. When you do so, you will find Jesus’ promise fulfilled: “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” That is, the most amazing creations of humankind cannot compare with even one of thousands of short-lived flowers.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then believe whatever your preacher says they should look like, but to consider what they actually look like. But there are millions of fundamentalists (not quite all of them in Oklahoma where I live) who will believe whatever their preachers say, even regarding things they could easily go and look at for themselves. These deluded followers will not even bother to read the Bible, about which they actually know very little, for themselves, but just believe what the preachers tell them it says.

Jesus did not say to ignore the lilies of the field while driving your tractor or four-wheeler over them, or while pouring chemicals on them, or while paving them over or peeing on them.

I recommend that you actually get down on your knees to look at the flower, rather than picking it and holding it in your fingers. By picking it you have already vanquished it and made it into a thing, an expendable resource, rather than a living being with which you share the world. Pick it only if you are dissecting it for closer study.

I like to believe that if people who consider themselves Christians will actually get down on the ground and look at a wildflower, this will begin a cascade of consequences that will make them start thinking for themselves rather than just believing their preachers. This is important since some preachers, most famously Pat Robertson, tell them that God wants them to believe everything that Donald Trump says. How can you worship Donald Trump once you have looked closely at the intricacy of a flower?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Lord, Liar, Lunatic…or Lourdes

Was the resurrection of Jesus an illusion? I’m not saying that it was, but on this blog you should expect such questions to be asked.

A famous fundamentalist evangelist of the 1970s was Josh McDowell, who was well known for turning the piercing light of logic upon the Christian religion and proclaiming that its fundamental tenets had passed the test of credibility. Most famously, he posed the question of Jesus’ divinity. If Jesus was not Lord, then He must have been a liar, for He claimed that He was, or a lunatic, for believing Himself to be. Lord, liar, or lunatic—a catchy phrase.

Catchy but wrong. If, in fact, you can eliminate the liar and lunatic options for Jesus, then the only possible conclusion is “Lord,” which is true only if McDowell considered all the possibilities. But there is a fourth possibility: the resurrection was an illusion, which people wanted so badly to believe that their minds created the beliefs.

This does not mean that the early Christians, or their successors, were lunatics. Perfectly normal people can have illusions; they become lunatics only if the illusion overwhelms their common sense ability to function in society. I will use a couple of examples from the Catholic Church, which is actually less prone to illusion than many fundamentalist sects.

First, consider the “miracle of Lourdes.” In 1858, a girl named Bernadette Soubirous claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in a grotto near Lourdes in southern France. Not once, but eighteen times. Two of the things the Virgin told her were, first, that she (not just Jesus) had been immaculately (asexually, presumably through mitosis) conceived, and second, that if believers would dig a hole at the base of the grotto they would release a spring of water that would have healing properties.

Consider the claim about the immaculate conception of Mary. Some people say that this had to be revealed by the Virgin herself to Mlle. Bernadette, because Pope Pius IX had not declared this doctrine until 1854, only four little tiny years before Mlle. Bernadette’s visions, and during those four brief years Mlle. Bernadette could not have possibly heard about it. Of course, she most certainly could have known about it.

There is a spring from the grotto and it ejects enough water that people can go swimming in it. And millions have done so. The grotto of Lourdes has had 200 million visitors since 1860. Claims have been made that the waters cured nerve damage, cancer, paralysis, even blindness. The Catholic Church recognizes that many of these hundreds of claims have been delusions, but has certified 69 of them as genuine. We all know, however, about the placebo effect: almost anything can make you feel better, or even feel cured, it you sincerely believe it to be so. The placebo effect has long been the bane of pharmaceutical development. But the placebo effect works so well, especially if the placebos are expensive, that some scientists wonder if possibly the placebos should be used to unleash the body’s self-healing capacity. Numerous scientific studies have been conducted with the water from this spring, and no curative effects have been found.

The people who make pilgrimages to Lourdes (the second largest tourist spot in France after Paris) are not lunatics, but they are experiencing an illusion. The human mind, even a normal mind, sees what it expects to see.

Second, consider the “miracle of Fátima.” Based on persistent rumors, somewhere between thirty and one hundred thousand pious Catholics had gathered near this Portuguese town, fully convinced that some unspecified solar miracle was going to happen on October 13, 1917. They would latch onto anything out of the ordinary as a miracle. The people were watching the sun, many of them having smudged smoke onto glass to make solar filters. Some reported seeing the sun itself become a spinning disc in the sky, which careened toward the Earth and then zigzagged back to its original location. Others reported seeing multi-colored sunlight. Others saw both. Some saw nothing.

Since the sun is so big and so far away, this event could not possibly have happened any more than actual stars could fall from the sky the way the Bible says. So what did happen? The spinning and zigzagging could have been retinal after-images. Haven’t you ever seen these after glancing at the sun? Happens to me all the time, if I happen to look toward the sun and then away. What about the colors? Sometimes high-altitude atmospheric ice crystals can refract light into a rainbow of colors, even forming colorful bright blotches to either side of the sun. They may immediately precede a snowstorm. They are called false suns or sundogs. They can cause the appearance of three suns, such as in the Wilhelm Müller poem (Die Nebensonnen) that Schubert used in Die Winterreise: “Drei Sonnen sah ich am Himmel steh’n…” I have seen them. If I had not studied the rudiments of physics, I might have considered them a miracle.

Jesus’ disciples might have wanted so badly to believe that Jesus was not really dead that their otherwise sane and normal minds played tricks on them. Christian apologists claim it could not have been an illusion because the disciples were not expecting to see Jesus rise from the dead. But it cannot be denied that they hoped He would. In one account, two disciples walked with a stranger, whom they did not recognize, upon the Emmaus Road. Only after he was gone did they “realize” that the stranger was in fact Jesus, but with a different face. This is exactly what a psychologist would expect to hear from someone who was experiencing an illusion.

The disciples weren’t crazy. They were just human.

Liar and lunatic are not the only alternative to Lord. There are two alternatives: Lord and Lourdes.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trump and Andrew Jackson

Trump’s Republican worshipers are hostile toward immigrants—though they claim not to be; they welcome even Muslims, so long as they are from countries in which Trump has business investments. But Trump is himself a pure-white descendant of people who immigrated from Europe within the last two centuries. He is of pure immigrant ethnicity.

And then there are the Native Americans. I can just hear full-blood or mostly full-blood Native Americans telling Trump, “Get out of our land and go back home.”

White Americans have always considered themselves the true owners of North America. And none was more convinced of this than President Andrew Jackson. It was his direct action that took all of the tribal lands from the Cherokees, even though the Supreme Court ruled that he could not legally do so. He did it anyway. And he ordered the Army to force the Cherokees to move. General Winfield Scott obeyed Jackson’s orders, and rounded up the Cherokees by force and put them in a stockade, trapped with wastes and disease and malnourishment. Then he forced them to travel, many of them on foot, through the fierce winter of 1839 to what is now Oklahoma. That is how my great-great-great grandmother Elizabeth Hilderbrand Pettit (later Armstrong) and her little girl Minerva, my great-great grandmother, came to Oklahoma. General Scott hated to do this, and kept apologizing to the Cherokees, and they understood that he was simply following orders. I’m not sure that makes it right, but I do not hate General Scott. I do, however, hate Andrew Jackson, who broke the law in order to grab all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi.

Might Trump do anything like this? Might he believe that Native Americans, while not immigrants, are lesser citizens than whites? (Many Native tribes did not receive American citizenship until 1926, sixty years after black people did.) Might he decide to expropriate tribal lands today. Maybe the Supreme Court would stop him? It didn’t stop Jackson.

But, of course, Trump is not the same as Jackson. Or is he? In January, Trump ordered a portrait of Andrew Jackson to be hung in the Oval Office.

Okay, okay, Trump, we get the message. I guess us Cherokees had better get ready to move…where? There’s no place left, unless France will take us. Okay, Chief Baker, start learning French, so you can ask the French government, once the French figure out who will be running it, “Est-ce que nous pouvons immigrer à France?”

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Maybe There Will Be a Mass Exodus

In an earlier essay, I speculated that, despite Trump’s attack on science education and research, insisting that both education and research should be focused entirely on his loudly-stated beliefs rather than on any data from the real world, there would probably be no mass exodus of scientists out of the United States into (for example) China (see my science blog entry). But events of recent weeks have caused me to rethink this.

Trump announced the appointment of his chair of a task force that will recommend reforms for higher education. That man is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Yes, the president of Liberty University, and the son of its late former president, Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell Jr. has said that he will redesign higher education so that it is focused on the Bible, and will bring higher education “back to some form of sanity.” And what this undoubtedly means is that, in order for students to receive loans to attend colleges and universities, they will have to attend colleges and universities that promote the utter and absolute truth of Creationism. Science education will quickly collapse, and therefore science educators will quickly leave the United States (this is my plan) or else find some other kind of job (I have not ruled out the possibility of being a science-education supermarket produce stocker, leading customers on economic botany tours in the produce section). If the entire function of science education is to indoctrinate college students in creationism, then scientific research will quickly collapse in the United States. Other countries, more welcoming to science, will benefit immensely from the inevitable brain drain.

What could possibly go wrong?

The creationists do not really want to see God, Jesus, or the Bible exalted in science education. They do not want the Bible to be taught. They want their interpretation of the Bible to be taught. Creationists consider themselves personally inerrant, incapable of error, when they open a Bible and start talking. There have been many interpretations of Genesis 1, for example, and the history of these interpretations goes back hundreds of years. But creationists consider all these other interpretations of the Bible to be wrong. The creationists, and they alone, are chosen by God to tell people what to believe about the Bible. Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks that we should all bow down and revere Him, Falwell, as the single approved explicator of God’s truth.

I don’t have a problem with Jesus. I don’t have a problem with the Bible, which may be inspired by God or may be an historical record of people trying to understand God. I have a problem with creationist Republicans elevating themselves to Godlike status and pushing God out of the way. This is the “form of sanity” that Falwell intends to impose on all scientists, educators, and students.

Yes, I am accusing creationists of blasphemy.

I don’t have a problem with Jesus. I don’t have a problem with the Bible, which may be inspired by God or may be an historical record of people trying to understand God. I have a problem with creationist Republicans elevating themselves to Godlike status and pushing God out of the way. This is the “form of sanity” that Falwell intends to impose on all scientists, educators, and students.

I teach about evolution, biodiversity, and global warming. Will I soon be considered an enemy of the state? History is full of scientists who have been crushed by religious power, from Galileo to Vavilov. Meanwhile, J’ose lire la Bible moi-même.

Friday, January 27, 2017

To the Least of My Brethren

When I was a small child, I watched a religious documentary on television about the life of Jesus. I have forgotten most of it, but I remember the ending. The narrator quoted Jesus: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do so to me.” The narrator made no further comment. But the film footage that accompanied it showed drug addicts sitting in the gutters of a major city. This was in the mid-1960s, during the height of the hippie era.

I felt really challenged and uncomfortable by the ending of this documentary. If I believed Jesus, which I did, then it was my responsibility to love drug addicts sitting in the gutters. Jesus did not say that the drug addicts first had to reform, and then we could love them. To me—and I was as neat and conservative of a little kid as there could be—this sounded like giving the nod of approval to their sinful life styles. I did not like this.

I still don’t. Jesus’ words are still hard to swallow.

But the most interesting part is this. I’m pretty sure that I remember that the documentary was sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. I very much doubt that Southern Baptists would produce such a documentary today. The Southern Baptists have pretty much sold out to the conservative, Republican political line that drug addicts are evil and unworthy of any assistance, and that poor people are poor because they are lazy. Conservatives today despise poor people, especially those who are, in fact, responsible for their own poverty. But they did sponsor this documentary fifty years ago. In the last half century, the Southern Baptists and other conservative religious groups have left Christianity behind and become an arm of the Republican Party. It didn’t used to be this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way.

I hope conservative churches might emerge out of their Trump-worshiping phase and go back to this particular aspect of what they used to be like. I’m not holding my breath, however.