Category Archives: History
I *love* a lot of people, some famous and some not. But I think the questioner is asking me to narrow down a list of people that are above and beyond even a high standard of awesomeness, and have me explain why. Here we go.
As you might expect, Carl Sagan has always been one of my favorite people. Not only a great scientist, but an excellent communicator of science to the public. Not only a great communicator of science, but a dreamer who cared about the political and social realities of our time and offered a vision about the future transcended our present location in time and space. At a time when the Cold War seemed far from over, he condemned the “obscene” number of active nuclear weapons on Earth and framed it in the context of existential risk and survival in the vast Cosmos. He talked passionately about the need to protect our fragile environment from the dangers of climate change. He warned us against the costs of religious or political divisions. And he directly addressed a lot of social issues, like the prohibition of marijuana. He died in 1996, convinced that we are not alone in the Universe.
The next person on this very short list is Bayard Rustin. He was a civil rights activist, a socialist, a Quaker, and a gay rights advocate. He agreed with MLK and Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence, and he worked to organize the 1947 Freedom Ride and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. He traveled to California and worked to protect property rights of Japanese Americans during WWII internment. Although he identified as a member of the Communist Party during his early life, he eventually became disillusioned with the movement.
It wasn’t his communist history that got him in trouble as much as his open homosexuality. His political opponents, many part of the more conservative parts of the Civil Rights movement, labeled him as a pervert and a corrupting influence, and many historians say that his legacy suffered as a result. It’s a shame that he’s not more well-known these days.
There’s a great documentary about Rustin if you want to learn more.
If there is any giant leap in the betterment of humankind, it is in the field of medicine. The fact that you will likely live beyond age 70 is a result of millions of hours of research, and hundreds of thousands of experiments and trials. Let us thank all the very dedicated doctors and researchers who have made it their life’s work to make the world a much better place.
Often one hears from the religious (and from Christians in particular) that religion tames the natural state of the human. The creationist pseudo-intellectual John Piper, for example, often talks about this in his oh-so-sophisticated “analysis” of atheism.
But why should we believe that the willingness to put rules and regulations on human freedom in the name of mystical ascetic values is not natural too? Religion, as described by Daniel Dennett, is entirely natural phenomenon. It is exactly what one expects from a species that, having evolved for billions of years, still have frontal lobes that are too small and hormonal glands that are too big. Even with our frontal lobes, we are host to countless cognitive biases that we are very seldom aware of and which seriously disrupt our ability to make reliable, accurate inferences from available evidence.
It is therefore no surprise that we, as natural people, have a long history filled with superstition and off-the-charts irrationality. We have and we continue to believe that witchcraft and demonic possessions are real things, and that we can kill witches or perform exorcisms. We have people that fall for Nigerian scams and arguments like Lewis’s Trilemma or TAG. We have a surprising number of highly educated people committing the conjunction fallacy. We have a very difficult time understanding Bayes’s Theorem.
The methods of skeptical inquiry that we take for granted, the methods of science, rationality, and logic are not natural. We are not born with nearly the kind of sharp rationality that we should have; rather, we are inescapably mammals full of delusions and beliefs that we don’t realize we have.
The secular idea of human freedom, of living in a pluralistic society with a separation of church and state, is also not natural. It is politically radical, religiously blasphemous, and chronologically modern. The history of humanity is filled with patterns of oppression, and much of this oppression comes from ideas about how we should control the apparent “natural” impulse of man. This need, this will to political and moral power, is as natural as the impulses themselves, and it leads to very bad places.
These ideas are a rejection of our supposed “natural” ideas of sex, of work, of family life. They’ve placed women in bondage and homosexuals in jail. They’ve made certain days of the week “holy” enough to not allow anyone to work (or sell alcohol). They continue to haunt us through taunts of, “we love the sinner, but hate the sin”. They seek to define what people can wear or how they should present themselves (often with extra regulations for a specific gender). They care about your family and your marriage and feel threatened when your family isn’t like theirs. They’ve warned against the dangers of skepticism, of free inquiry, of rational inferential methods. And they absolutely cannot stand atheism, because all people are born without a belief in God, and whatever people are naturally can’t possibly be good.
If religion wants to tame us as natural people, then it has to start at the fundamental level. It has to demonstrate why it is correct outside of the realms of “personal experience” and other fallacious methods of inquiry. It has to demonstrate, and not merely assert, why it is morally superior. Even after hundreds or thousands of years, there is still work that they haven’t even started.
Tina Strobos, famous woman of the Dutch resistance who sheltered more than 100 Jews during the Holocaust, recently passed away from cancer at the age of 91.
She risked her own life for total strangers. She found ingenious ways to forge travel documents. She let carpenters build hidden rooms in her own house. She was arrested multiple times and survived all the interrogations. Her house was searched multiple times. She didn’t fail.
“I never believed in God,” she said, “but I believed in the sacredness of life.”
So don’t ever ever ever let anyone tell you that we can’t be Good Without God.
The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, assembled in 1820, is the title of the Thomas Jefferson’s edited compilation of the stories in the New Testament. Jefferson literally took a razor and cut out all the supernatural, nonsensical aspects of the Gospels and kept all the stories that had moral value.
I was very fortunate to be able to see the actual Jefferson Bible during my visit to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. They have a new exhibit that recently opened in November 2011 and will run until July 2012.
This is what the American History Museum looks like on the outside.
The exhibit was right next to this more permanent one about Jefferson’s involvement in the dark side of slavery.
The entrance into the exhibit.
“Left behind in the source material were those elements that he could not support through reason or that he believed were later embellishments, such as the miracles and the Resurrection.”
More background information.
At last, the thing itself.
Michael Ruse paid a short visit to the University of Chicago on Thursday at a small meeting full of graduate students and Jimmy John’s sandwiches (which was a slight disappointment considering the overwhelming superiority of pretty much anything from Potbelly’s).
I normally show up to events like these to take advantage of an opportunity to ask armor-piercing questions. But this was more of a listening event. I first became interested in Prof. Ruse the person by reading The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw, and I realized I really wanted to see the guy in person. It’s an excellent book by the way, and I recommend that anyone who really wants to understand the history of scientific progress to read it.
Michael Ruse has done wonderful work of not just advancing science, but fighting against creationism and its Trojan horses like intelligent design. He’s a leading scholar on the philosophy of science, and his coverage of the evolution/creationism debate has been followed by many around the world.
But of course, Michael Ruse is the Great Accommodationist. He has written articles on how the “new atheists are a bloody disaster,” and he has a new book on how science and faith are compatible. His positions, consequently, clash violently with my worldview. The utter incompatibility between scientific ways of knowing and faith-based ways of knowing are as clear to me as any basic proof by contradiction.
But I was listening, and he was speaking. As Chana Messinger from the UChicago Secular Alliance noted, Prof. Ruse, on multiple occasions, just loved say that he was a “conservative Protestant nonbeliever” who took the Bible more seriously than a lot of other Christians. Of course, in light of the prevalent relativism and intellectual dishonesty of many so-called modern-day “liberal Christians,” I couldn’t help but agree with Prof. Ruse on this one. People who claim to be Christians but don’t believe in the Resurrection, or in salvation by faith, or in Original Sin are as useless to serious intellectual discussion as non-chess-players are to chess theory. It’s a shame, unfortunately, that Prof. Ruse is only marginally better than these pseudo-Christians.
Prof. Ruse’s ultimate thesis is that because there are questions that science cannot touch—questions like “why is there something rather than nothing?” and “does a God love us?”—it is therefore perfectly alright for faith-based beliefs (like Christianity) to enter the discussion so long as they don’t blatantly trespass on science (in the form of creationism or the insane belief that Adam and Eve were actual people). His position seems at a two-second glance to hold some water, but once he gets questioned, one can clearly see the falling scenery behind his little show. One audience member noted that the Apostle’s Creed sums up Christian belief very well. Why then is Prof. Ruse so offended at the idea of a literal Adam and Eve but not at the idea of a human Resurrection or a virgin birth?
Prof. Ruse’s answer was that as long as Christians don’t try to make it a scientific claim, then it does not trespass on science. But a historical resurrection IS a scientific claim. There were physical cells and proteins involved in death and revitalization of a living body. A virgin birth is likewise a scientific claim. There are natural materials involved in the spontaneous fertilization of a female’s eggs. Prof. Ruse then tried to escape by citing Hume, who must have been rocking rather than rolling in his grave at that moment.
The overall problem is not that Prof. Ruse gives too much credence to religion, even though he does. The problem is that he knows and believes very much that religion and faith are incompatible in many ways. He even said very clearly that he thinks anyone who believes in a literal Resurrection is nuts and that “if science and religion are indeed incompatible, science will win every time.” It’s quite unfortunate that he holds these views but still doesn’t have the guts to go one deductive step further.
“Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence, it will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”
– Bertrand Russell
And a new video has surfaced. His voice, his message, his dream lives on.
Watch the following two summaries of human history. Which one is more likely to be true? Which one do you want to be true? Which one is more inspirational?
George W. Bush spoke today at the United 93 site in Pennsylvania.
At the memorial we dedicate today will ensure our nation always remembers those lost here on 9/11. But we have a duty beyond memory. We have a duty beyond honoring. We have a duty to live our lives in a way that upholds the ideals for which the men and women gave their lives, to build a living memorial to their courage and sacrifice. We have a duty to find common purpose as a nation.
Over a century ago, it was also in Pennsylvania that an American president honored those who died.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.