Saturday, September 22, 2018

Lustful monkeys with big brains

As I've probably said on more than one occasion, conservative candidates are at a disadvantage in public debates. Democrats and/or secular progressives are uninhibited in saying whatever they think. They express the most outlandish views with impunity. By contrast, conservative candidates have to project sensitivity. To mix metaphors, they're constantly pulling their punches and walking on eggshells. They're afraid to say what needs to be said. They're afraid to challenge liberal assumptions. Liberals win by stipulating outlandish claims as indisputable, then proceeding to build on that false premise. 

I don't necessarily blame conservative candidates for being so squeamish, because many voters are irrational. It's a tough environment to navigate. That's why those of us who aren't candidates need to challenge Democrats and/or secular progressives to be consistent.

A Supreme Court nominee has been accused of attempted rape when he was 17. How should that be morally assessed? That depends in large part on our moral frame of reference. Is that Christian ethics or secular ethics? Before I get to that I'd like to address two preliminary issues: 

1. What's the difference between rape and attempted rape? Attempted rape is ambiguous. Consider two different scenarios:

i) A male intends to have sexual intercourse with a female against her will. He initiates the action, but for whatever reason, is unable to carry it through. 

ii) A male at a drinking party gets sexually aggressive with a female to test her sexual receptivity. If she resists, he will back down.

In the case of (i), he was willing but unable. In the case of (ii), he was able but unwilling. In the case of (i), he tried and failed. In the case of (ii), he was in a position to physically overpower her, but relented. In the case of (ii), the overture was unsolicited, but whether he carried through with it was contingent on her consent. He didn't intend to have sexual intercourse against her will. 

Are both these actions attempted rape? Is (ii) sexual assult or aggressive unsuccessful seduction? Is (i) failed rape while (ii) is failed seduction? 

Up to a point, this is reversible. At a drinking party, a female might get sexually aggressive with a male to test his sexual receptivity. She can't physically overpower him, but her overture is unsolicited. She "forces" herself on him in the sense of forcing the issue, pressuring him to make a choice. Is that sexual assault or aggressive unsuccessful seduction? 

Men can be the object of rape. That's common in prison. 

It's possible for a woman to roofie a guy and perform sexual actions on him. Is that rape? 

It's possible for a woman to sodomize a man if she incapacitates him and uses something like a mop handle. That's rape.  

2. Another issue is the role of alcohol in relation to rape or attempted rape. There's a sense in which intoxication induces a state of diminished responsibility. And if both male and female are drunk, that lowers or erases the threshold for consent. Indeed, that's one reason some people get drunk in the first place: to remove sexual inhibitions.

That said, an agent can be morally responsible for inducing a state of diminished responsibility. If I drive to a tavern, I intend to drive back. If I get drunk, I'm making a choice, at the time I'm sober, which will severely impair my perception and reflexes. If I kill a cyclist or pedestrian when I'm under the influence, I'm culpable for inducing that condition. 

However, there's a sense in which driving drunk is more brazen, more premeditated, than getting drunk at a partywhere the objective is to create open up certain possibilities. 

Moving along to the main point: 

3. From a Christian standpoint, humans have animal bodies, albeit bodies designed for human minds. We have the ability to inflict physical or emotional harm on others. But we're supposed to exercise self-restraint out of consideration for the welfare of others. 

In addition, standard Christian ethics regards fornication as a sin. That rules out rape, attempted rape, and seduction. Consensual as well as nonconsensual premarital sex. Not to mention extramarital sex. 

Of course, secular progressives despise Christian ethics in general and Christian sexual ethics in particular. So what's their alternative? 

4. From a secular standpoint, humans are libidinous monkeys with big brains. There are, moreover, evolutionary theories of rape. Combined with evolutionary ethics, what's the secular basis to condemn rape or attempted rape? 

One response is that sometimes we have a duty to resist our natural impulses. But there are problems with that response:

i) How many times have you seen atheists say we don't need God to be moral because evolution can account for our moral instincts? But how can they simultaneously insist that we ought to suppress our evolutionary mores? Is evolutionary psychology a reliable source of morality or not? 

ii) What's the standard an atheist relies on to differentiate good evolutionary mores from bad evolutionary mores? 

5. Since sexual performance declines with age, isn't it reasonable, from a secular standpoint, for men to make the most of their short-lived sexual prime? Why should they turn down opportunities when their opportunities will diminish with the passage of time? 

6. Sodomy and sadomasochism are more damaging than attempted rape. If attempted rape is so traumatic to the victim as to disqualify a candidate, why not sodomy or sadomasochism? 

Stats on rape allegations

Friday, September 21, 2018

Suppose he did it?

In different ways, Michael Brown, Bill Vallicella, Dennis Prager, and Robert Gagnon have all argued that even if the allegation against Kavanaugh is true, he should still be confirmed:

Their arguments are worth reading. The tactical advantage of that position is that you can discount the allegations, discount calls for an investigation. It's a simplifying maneuver.

Since I think Ford's story is weak, I don't need to have a considered answer to that hypothetical. I think it's unnecessary to go there. But if we do go there, it's much harder to maintain our moral footing. We lose some landmarks. 

1. One problem is that when people get away with a crime for many years, that aggravates rather than mitigates the original offense. Consider Michael Skakel and Bill Cosby, who were able to elude justice for so long. (Skakel is still gaming the system.) I'm not saying the allegation against Kavanaugh is morally comparable, but just using extreme examples to illustrate a point of principle. 

It's good when justice finally catches up with them. They managed to cheat justice for so long. To cheat the victim's right that just retribution be exacted on the perp. 

2. The best reason not to harm the innocent is because it's wrong to harm the innocent. That's the direct reason. That's the best disincetive.

A secondary disincentive is self-interest. If the would-be perp fears the consequences in case he's caught. The harm his action might do to his own prospects. Although that's not an admirable motive, it's often what prevents wrongdoing. If, however, we reward a fugitive of justice so long as he's able to play out the clock, then that dilutes the deterrent value of punishment. 

3. Assuming that he's guilty, there's more than one way it might have happened:

i) They were both sober

ii) They were both drunk

iii) He was sober and she was drunk

iv) He was drunk and she was sober

Culpability comes in degrees. Which of those scenarios is true affects the gravity of the offense. Intoxication can sometimes put one in a state of diminished responsibility. It can also make it easier to take advantage of someone. Depending on who's drunk or sober, that can be an aggravating or extenuating circumstance. 

4. Hopefully, Brown, Prager, and Gagnon don't think it makes no difference what you do as a minor so long as you clean up your act. If Michael Skakel turned over a new leaf after bludgeoning Martha Moxley to death, does that mean his crime should not permanently stigmatize him? 

What about teenage members of Muslim rape-gangs? What about young Muslims who disfigure women in acid attacks? Is there any adequate restitution? 

Grace in weakness

The dogs of war

From a recent Facebook exchange: 

TJ is with Joe Carter and Alan Noble.
Evangelical leaders are upset with the GOP, because the GOP isn't damning the proverbial torpedoes and rushing through the confirmation of a judge who's been credibly accused of sexual assault. This is where we find ourselves in 2018.

The next time some Christian conservative risibly tries to claim the moral high ground with you, keep this in mind.

Where we find ourselves in 2018 is people who think an unsubstantiated allegation of sexual assault should put the onus on the accused. What if TJ was on the receiving end of that standard? What does he have to fear? Seize his bank records, medical records, email, text messages, &c.

Where we find ourselves in 2018 is beholden to a bunch of old, white Conservative men who refuse to have the president authorize an FBI investigation into a sexual assault allegation against a potential member of the Supreme Court - a lifetime appointment, mind you - even though that precedent was set by President George H.W. Bush (R) in 1991 during the SCOTUS hearings for Clarence Thomas. 

These same old, white Conservative men want to rush the hearing and think the American public can't see that these same old, white Conservative men had no problem sitting on the Merrick Garland nomination for almost a YEAR. 

Where we find ourselves in 2018 is that many evangelical Christians seem to support this hypocrisy and the outright appalling assault on our democracy.

i) If it happened it wasn't a federal crime. Thomas and Hill were federal employees. The alleged harassment took place in the workplace. Hardly analogous. The FBI has no authority in that case.

ii) Why are you making sexist, racist, ageist comments about "old white men"? Is bigotry okay so long as you're a woman?

iii) The Senate had no Constitutional obligation to consider Garland.

Actually precedent shows the president is allowed to - and should - ask the FBI to investigate the claims. 

I explained why the comparison with Thomas/Hill is bogus. You didn't refute what I said. 

What's the problem? If Kavanaugh's done nothing wrong he should welcome an investigation. I would. 

No one should welcome a rogue FBI investigation. The onus is not on the accused to disprove an unsubstantiated allegation. 

Also GTFO with your Garland justifications. The entire country knows that was yet another GOP sham/scam. It's ok though.

Yes, it's okay for the Senate to ignore a nominee. It has that Constitutional prerogative. Remember when Democrats stiffed Estrada (and Janice Rogers Brown)?

I'm fine with whatever you want to call me...ageist, racist, whatever. You don't know me so your labels mean nothing to me.

Dianne Feinstein and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are both 85-year-old white women. Do you have a problem with their age and race? Your complaint reduces to misandry. 

I refute your idea that there should be no investigation because this was not a workplace/federal worker incident. In no way does that change the need for an investigation.

Actually it does since it falls outside the jurisdiction of the FBI.

And in what world does an FBI investigation go "rogue"? Do you believe in the deep state or some other bizarre notions of the FBI?"

When people urge the FBI to violate its mandate. So it's your position that the FBI has the statutory authority to investigate alleged sex crimes by minors in private homes?

Why don't you want an investigation?

i) You're playing a bait-n-switch. There's a difference between an investigation and an FBI investigation. In fact, when Susan Collins proposes that both the accused and the accuser testify, and be subject to cross-examination by their respective lawyers, that's an investigation.

ii) No, I don't think it's a good idea for Federal agencies with police powers to engage in extralegal investigations. That's a banana state.

Maybe you're a closet misogynist who thinks all women fake sexual assault claims.

Maybe your'e a closet misandrist who thinks women never make false rape allegations. Do you think every black man who was lynched in the Jim Crow South was presumptively guilty just because a white woman accused him of rape? 

There's every possibility you're just toeing the party line.

Unlike when you toe the Democrat party line?

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Pick on somebody your own size!

A quick observation on the Cartesian demon: Why would a being so vastly our intellectual superior find it interesting or entertaining to delude other beings so much simpler than itself? Consider teenagers or adults who outgrow toys, movies, stories, and games for little kids. According to the Cartesian thought-experiment, the cosmic deceiver is incomparably more intelligent than puny humans. So what's the fun in toying with us? Wouldn't that be boring? It's way too easy to outsmart us. Where's the challenge in that? 

The Good God

Steve just wrote about how unanswered prayer can sometimes cause us to doubt God’s benevolence.  Indeed, I’ve run into many atheists who have used just that argument, and during struggles in my own life it likewise becomes tempting to question whether or not God is good.  Indeed, I have never questioned whether God exists, but I have often questioned whether He is good.  Because I anticipate that I am not alone in that struggle, and because it could be used as a wedge issue, I want to delve into that a bit here. 

The first thing that we ought to examine when questioning whether or not God is good is whether or not we are even qualified to answer that question.  The truth of the matter is, each of us is a sinner.  To quote John Newton (who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”) at the end of his life: “Although my memory’s fading, I remember two things very clearly: I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”

Too often in Christianity, we focus on the second part of that: how great a Savior Christ is.  And generally, there’s nothing wrong with focusing there.  That is, after all, the essence of the Gospel.  It is the very reason it is “Good News” in the first place.

And yet, Good News does not appear in a vacuum.  The Good News of Christ only works because of the Bad News in the first part of that sentence: “I am a great sinner.”

Now there are obviously countless Scriptural passages we could look at to demonstrate this fact.  To do a quick scenario, Jesus says in John 8:34, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”  And 1 John 1:8 informs us, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”  So by these two passages, we know that each of us is a slave to sin.  Of course, Jesus says more.  In John 8:36, “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  So this once again gives us our great hope in Him.

But let us return to the first half of the equation yet again.  When we are saved, we are saved indeed, but our old self still remains.  It doesn’t disappear.  That is why Paul says in Ephesians 4:22, 24, “…put off your old self, which belongs to our former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.”

The old self is still there and it fights against the new self, and it is important to note that Paul is addressing believers.  That is, putting on the new self is not talking about salvation, but rather the sanctification of those who have already believed.  For instance, in the parallel passage in Colossians 3, Paul states: “In these you too once walked, when you were living in them.  But now you must put them all away...seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Colossians 3:7-8, 9-10).  Notice that the old self is described as being the way “you once walked”—past tense.  And in fact, the first verse of the chapter even begins, “If then you have been raised with Christ”, indicating salvation has already occurred to those Paul is addressing.

So this struggle between the old self and the new self continues, even after salvation.  This is why even though the Apostle Peter was able to preach the great sermon of Acts 2, Paul still had to later oppose him to his face because his actions were literally harming the Gospel message.

Now, why do I bring this up?  Because it is important for us to remember that even as Christians, if we begin to accuse God of not being benevolent, we have to know whether or not that accusation is coming from the old self or the new self.  The old self is evil.  1 Corinthians 2:14 goes so far as to say, “The natural person [i.e., the old self] does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.”

Think about that for a moment.  If we experience something in our daily life that seems to indicate God is not good, then which is more likely: that God actually is not good, or that we, who we already know are great sinners and who in our natural state cannot accept the things of God because they are foolish to us, do not actually know that “good” really is?

“I am a great sinner and Christ is a great Savior.”  If I am a great sinner, I cannot trust my judgment of what is good and what is evil.  Instead: “For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him?  So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (1 Corinthians 2:11).  We have that Spirit, not just via our new self, but in the Word of God, written for us in Scripture.  And Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”  This means that even if our old self does not understand how something God does is benevolent, our new self can have that assurance—all things, even the things that appear not to, work for good.

It's party time!

For what it's worth, a few more thoughts on the Kavanaugh imbroglio:

1. I think Ford's story is generically credible in the sense that things like that happen at drinking parties with teenagers or college students. It falls right in line a painfully familiar narrative.

Of course, that doesn't make it true–or even presumptively true. Indeed, because the narrative is so familiar, it's easy to fabricate. 

2. On the face of it, there are holes in her story. As Ben Shapiro notes:

Why Do Her Therapist’s Notes Conflict With Her Account? 
Ford showed her therapist’s notes to The Washington Post. Those notes conflict with her account. The notes don’t include names, instead stating that the alleged perpetrators were “from an elitist boys’ school,” and had since become “highly respected and high-ranking members of society in Washington.” The notes also state that four boys were involved, not two; she says her therapist got it wrong, and that there were four boys at the party but only two boys involved. Another therapy session the following year includes the charge that Ford underwent a “rape attempt” in “her late teens,” but she was allegedly 15 – not late teens – when this incident occurred. Her husband, who was present for the first therapy session, said Kavanaugh’s name was raised, but the Post account doesn’t say that Kavanaugh was called the alleged perpetrator.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

When tomorrow never comes

Although I don't think unanswered prayer casts doubt on God's existence (too much evidence for that), it does cast prima facie doubt on God's benevolence. Ironically, Deists think the problem isn't with unanswered prayer but answered prayer! They think a God who intervenes is a God who lacks foresight to get it right the first time around. They view divine intervention as God rewriting the script. Editing his rough draft. That's actually a good objection to open theism. 

In theory, this ranges along a continuum from a God who never answers prayer to a God who always answers prayer. What would a world be like where God answers every prayer? 

To begin with, are we confining that to Christian prayers and pre-Christian Jewish prayers? Or does that extend to, say, Hindu prayers? Even if we confine it to Christian and Jewish prayers, do we distinguish between nominal believers and true believers? 

One problem with God answering every prayer is that some prayers cancel out other prayers. Some prayers are mutually incompossible. 

We might compare efficacious prayer to time-travel scenarios. In the sci-fi lore, time travel has a disruptive impact on the future by replacing the original future with an alternate timeline. The more often that happens, the more disruptive the effect. Cumulative temporal dislocation. 

Imagine a world in which there was no time-travel from January until the first Thursday in July. Up to that point there's continuity as people cycle through the week, a day at a time. But on the first Thursday in July (of that year), time travel became ubiquitous. 

That means you never get beyond Thursday. Friday never comes because Friday is constantly replaced by alternate futures. Every morning, when you wake up, it's Thursday. Each time it's a different Thursday. Not a different calendar date Thursday. The same calendar date Thursday, but a Thursday in a different timeline. You go through Thursday, go to bed, fall asleep, and it's Thursday all over again when you wake up because the disruptive effect of ubiquitous time travel resets the starting-date. 

Efficacious prayer would have a similar effect. Two alternate timelines sharing their histories up to the moment where they fork off. If God answers a prayer, that stands in contrast to what might have been had he not, and vice versa. If God answered every prayer, that's like constantly resetting the starting-date–so that we keep repeating the same calendar day. Different things happen each time because it represents a road not taken, but there's no continuity and no progression. You're forever stuck in Thursday. It's not the same as a time loop, because things change every time that happens, but it's always on that particular day. The next day never comes. Hence, the paradox of efficacious prayer. 

If efficacious prayer generates a conundrum like that, then that may be one reason why God selectively answers prayer, even though some prayers seem to be just as "deserving" as others. God strikes a balance between stability, intercession, and chaos. 

God in the coma

Classical theists believe God subsists outside of time and space. So how does God interface with embodied, timebound agents? Take a comparison: suppose a young man suffers severe brain damage from a traffic accident. He's in a coma. 

His mind is still intact. He can dream, remember, imagine, but he's cut off from the outside world. He can't register what people say to him, he can't register when they stroke his hair or hold his hand. He's sealed away in his own mind. (I'm not saying if that's actually true for comatose patients. It's just a thought-experiment.)  

But suppose his best friend is a telepath. Up until now his best friend didn't have to tap into telepathy to communicate with the comatose patient. But they have many shared memories of stuff they did together. Hiking. Jet-skiing. Boating up and down a nearby river. And so on.

The best friend is able to bypass the brain damage and broken sensory relays to contact the comatose patient directly. When the comatose patient dreams, his best friend inserts himself into the dream. They enjoy the same kind of fellowship they did before the accident. The telepath needn't be physically present to be psychologically present. And psychological presence can simulate the five senses. 

Exorcizing the Cartesian demon

God and checkers

One version of the argument from natural evil that I sometimes run across goes like this: since the laws of nature are contingent rather than necessary, God could dispense with natural evils by making a universe with different laws. 

There's a grain of truth to that, but the reality is a good deal more complicated and imponderable. It's simpler for God to bypass natural laws than for God to change natural laws. When God circumvents a nature law to perform a miracle, God is accessing his omnipotence to product the result directly. 

But if he alters the laws of physics, it's not just a case of changing one law or another law in piecemeal fashion. For in a cause/effect universe, all the laws must be mutually consistent. One law can't be changed while leaving all other laws in place. Rather, changing one law requires a systematic adjustment in other laws, for them to cooperate. 

The hypothetical alternative is so different from our own that we have no idea what such a universe would be like. And there may be few coherent alternatives. Compare it to a game of checkers:

Researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada formally announced that they had finally solved the centuries-old game of checkers. Specifically: they had a file which contained full information on every legal position that can arise during the game, and which move, if any, will lead to a win or a draw in that position.

The conclusion to be drawn from the completion of the database: with perfect play by both sides checkers cannot be won or lost. The game will inevitably end in a draw. This means that even the most skilled player cannot beat a computer which has access to the database. The computer can't win either – it can only do so if the human opponent makes a mistake that leads to position that is classified as a loss in the database.

Actually, there aren't an unlimited number of combinations. It turns out, there are a mere 500,000,000,000,000,000,000 combinations (500 quintillion) that can be made over the course of a game of the system knows the perfect series of plays to win the game at any point. A perfect opponent matched against Chinook can never hope to beat it; even if they play a perfect game, their best result is a draw.

If God plays by the rules, that imposes a severe restriction on his field of action (a self-imposed limitation, to be sure).

If he plays checkers, he's not assuming the role of an omnipotent player. He's bracketed his omnipotence. He's an omniscient player, but not an omnipotent player, because he's not taking advantage of his omnipotence. That's available, but kept in reserve.  

God cannot achieve a result by law without imposing a self-limitation on his field of action. God can achieve a result by acting outside a network of natural laws, but if he's operating within a network of natural laws, if he employs that medium to achieve the result, then there are many things he cannot do. 

If God plays checkers with a computer, God can't beat the computer. Even though God is omnipotent and the computer is finite, if God confines himself to the rules of the game, then he can only play to a draw. There are only so many ways to win and lose. The program has that information. That's all it needs to be invincible. God isn't bound by the rules, but it ceases to be a game of checkers if he breaks the rules or overrides the computer. 

The Crisis of Rome and Its Claims of Ultimate Authority

What makes something or someone blameworthy?

The political illustration notwithstanding, this is a philosophical analysis that's relevant to debates over freewill theism and Calvinism. What makes a person or action blameworthy?

Tuesday, September 18, 2018


CR: I think we need a lot more research on atheists and am glad that we are starting to see more. Even if you look at the pretty basic questions asked by organizations like Pew you can see that there is diversity in the spiritual inclinations of atheists. There are neurological and cognitive-based reasons to argue that a very small percent of people are true atheists. But there are also reasons to believe that many atheists are really more superficial or social atheists – people who view themselves as nonbelievers but who actually engage in supernatural thinking. Some atheists are angry at religion or even God and so view atheism as a protest against belief. Some, particularly young people, may see religious belief as not cool, something for old people. And many have benefited from a socially and economically privileged life that has not stress-tested their atheism.

Consider, for example, a recent study in New Zealand that observed an increase in religious belief among nonbelievers who were personally impacted by a major earthquake or research showing that atheism is associated with poorer psychological wellbeing among people in economically disadvantaged areas but not in more affluent ones. Think about the following example. It is easier for a rich person who lives in a very safe neighborhood to become philosophical about the value of the police. This person can say with little consequence that the police are bad and we don’t need police, that all the police do is create problems. But you can bet with near certainty that this individual would be quick to call the police in an emergency. In other words, the safer, more comfortable, and prosperous a society is, the less outwardly religious it may appear to be.

I say “outwardly” because even when people live where they feel physically safe and can easily meet basic needs, existential questions about meaning remain.  Many atheists may be one serious existential threat away from finding religion or looking for a substitute for it. From this perspective, true atheists are the few who may simply lack the underlying cognitive characteristics that allow for supernatural and related spiritual thinking. They may also be the rare individuals who are low in the need for meaning. So I don’t think the trends of declining religion are evidence for a decline in people’s religious nature. We wouldn’t say that because people are spending less time in face to face social interactions that the social nature of humans has diminished. I don’t think the religious nature of humans has diminished either.

KV: In recent years, nearly every poll in the West suggests an overall decline in religious faith and an increase in the so-called religious “nones.” However, in Supernatural you propose that people might perhaps exchange one variety of supernatural beliefs for another. Can you expand further on that idea for us here?

CR: In the book, I discuss a number of trends related to supernatural and paranormal beliefs that are in the opposite direction of declining religiosity. Many surveys in the US and other Western nations reveal that people aren’t abandoning all supernatural and related beliefs. As these countries become less invested in traditional Christian beliefs, they become more interested in nontraditional spiritual practices, ghosts, UFOs, healing crystals, psychic powers, and so on.

For example, my colleagues and I recently replicated research documenting an inverse correlation between religiosity and belief that intelligent alien life exists and is monitoring humans as well as conspiracy theories about government cover-ups regarding UFOs. After replicating this effect, we sought to further explore why it is that the less religious people are the ones more into aliens and UFOs. We predicted that part of it is about the need for meaning in life. Religiosity is generally positively associated with meaning. If nonreligious people see life as less meaningful but remain motivated to find meaning, they may be more inclined than those who already have a meaning-providing religious worldview to be attracted to ideas that would suggest humans are not alone in the universe. We found support for this idea using statistical modelling that linked low religiosity to low meaning to a greater desire to find meaning to beliefs about aliens and UFOs.

To be clear, aliens and UFO monitoring aren’t necessarily supernatural but they are outside of an evidence-based understanding of our world. To believe in them requires a leap of faith. And many UFO-related beliefs have a very religious flavor. They involve feeling like powerful beings are watching over us and may one day welcome us into a cosmic community. Of course, many nonreligious people do hold these beliefs, but there are many unorthodox supernatural or paranormal ideas and beliefs that nonreligious people are attracted to in their search for meaning and cosmic significance. And there are secular ideologies such as transhumanism that have what I call supernatural-lite qualities. They aren’t explicitly supernatural but appear to be driven by the same cognitive and motivational processes and often end up looking very similar to religion.

KV: In Supernatural, you suggest that faith in religious supernatural beliefs may offer some benefits for physical health, mental health, and societal living. Can you tell us about what some of those benefits are, and whether you find that there are any downsides to supernatural beliefs?

CR: Religious supernatural beliefs promote meaning, and meaning is a predictor of wellbeing and mental health. These beliefs have also been shown to help people cope with stress and the life events that challenge meaning. This might be because meaning motivates people.

That is, people who feel they have a purpose are more driven to take care of themselves, to work hard, to live a healthy life, and to persevere when life gets difficult. People who feel meaningless don’t have this motivation. They are more inclined to turn to drugs and alcohol or other hedonistic behaviors that feel good but do not help them in the long run.

Should your past make you a pariah?

The Kavanaugh controversy is ephemeral. One way or another, it will probably be over with by next week. I'm discussing it because it raises some perennial ethical issues. 

But what if he is guilty? Should the Senate Judiciary Committee vote against his nomination?

Let’s put our past sins into four different categories, responding to each category in turn.

Foolish Things
The first category consists of the foolish things we did as teenagers and young people. But these transgressions are known, open, and a distant part of our history.

For example, my personal testimony, “From LSD to Ph.D.” is well-known.

It is well-known that I was a heroin-shooting, LSD-using, hippie rock drummer before coming to faith in Jesus at the age of 16 in 1971.

It is well-known I broke into a doctor’s office with a friend and stole drugs.

It is well-known that I was a proud, angry rebel.

As our daughters grew up, I shared my story with them. Now my grandkids know my story.

My story is known and out in the open, and it’s a testimony to God’s grace.

Since 1971, I have not used an illegal drug or abused a legal drug. And, despite drinking heavily at times in my teen years, I have not had a sip of alcohol since 1971.

If Brett Kavanaugh got drunk with his friends and assaulted another teenager that would be grave and ugly. But if this was something that was known, open, and unrelated to his behavior and conduct ever since then, it should not disqualify him from service today. (To be “known and open” would also mean that he had made things right with his alleged victim.)

Lots of us did stupid things when we were kids and teenagers. But as we became responsible adults, we put those things behind us.

Some of us even did reprehensible things as adults. But we made proper restitution, we were completely rehabilitated, and we have made something worthwhile out of our lives.

Such stories are noble and inspiring.

Past Behavior Honestly Addressed
The second category consists of sinful behavior in our past that we covered over, hoping it would never be discovered.

What happens when these old skeletons are suddenly discovered in our closet? If the behavior was totally uncharacteristic, if it did not lastingly wound or injure someone else, and if it was never again repeated, you can make a case for overlooking it — but only if the response today was proper.

In other words, if it came to light that, when you were a 16-year-old boy, you had consensual sex with your 16-year-old girlfriend, but since then, your moral behavior was impeccable, you shouldn’t be disqualified from public service today. But only if you responded properly when confronted.

A proper response would require full acknowledgment of guilt, not lying about the incident, and pointing to the changes you made to live rightly ever since.

To say that these sins of our youth make us unfit to serve today is to render unfit a vast percentage of the population. How many of us have an unblemished past?

The third category consists of lying today when confronted with sinful behavior from the past. That would be the bigger issue to me with Justice Kavanaugh.

Did he do something reprehensible as a drunken teenager? Perhaps he did, but again, that is just an accusation at this point.

The big question for me is: Is he telling the truth today?

We’re not looking to confirm teenager Kavanaugh. We’re looking to confirm Judge Kavanaugh.

His present behavior is far more important to me than his teenage behavior. Can the man be trusted?

When Past Becomes Present
The fourth category consists of sinful behavior in the past that still carries over until today.

If Kavanaugh did, in fact, sexually assault his accuser more than 35 years ago, does that reflect his attitude towards women ever since? Is he an abuser? Does he view women as sexual objects? Does he look on his alleged past transgressions as just a bunch of guys having fun?

Much of what Brown says here is sage pastoral and practical advance. But I have three caveats:

To deify the church

Robert Price is an apostate. But he does make a number of trenchant observations in this post:

The Roman Catholic Church reached the point of crisis some years ago. The ever-expanding scandal of priestly sexual abuse and, just as bad, the intricate and systematic cover-up by the highest authorities, has deepened the shadows in which lay Catholics have painfully struggled. What should they do? Leave the Church for Eastern Orthodoxy or Episcopalianism? Not a bad idea, it seems to me, but then I’m not a Catholic. But if I were, here are some of the factors I’d consider.

The situation is complicated by the nature of the Catholic Church as an institution. If one were dealing with a scandal in a Protestant congregation in which a clergy sex scandal had been revealed (and they have been, many times), it would be a simpler matter. Fire the minister (or make him undergo “counseling,” which I have always suspected was a euphemistic Get Out of Jail Free card provided by a sanctified Good Ole Boys club)—if you can. Sometimes the loyalty of the congregation to a beloved minister makes them reluctant to believe the charges against him, no matter how well-founded; either that or it makes them too forgiving. In these cases, one’s recourse would be simple: quit the church or split the church. But the Catholic Church is, by ancient design, a closely integrated, massive, and rigidly hierarchical institution. Only so could it ensure uniformity of doctrine, morals, and discipline. It ought to be able to employ this great machine to stamp out abuses like clergy sex predation, but what if the corruption is so deep, so far-reaching, so high up the ladder that it is no longer a question of getting rid of a few (thousand) bad apples? Suppose the Church hierarchy, the institution itself, has become the abuser?

It has happened. Even the Pope has been credibly charged with covering the butts of offending priests as well as those of bishops who protected the wolves instead of the lambs. You know, hosting the game of Musical Molesters. What should Catholics think? What should they do?

The All-Father from AMC's PreacherLet’s ask Saint Augustine. He was the theologian-bishop of Carthage in the early fourth century who defined important aspects of Catholic belief and practice as they still exist today. Some of his influence was good, some bad (and the verdict will vary according to whom you ask). Predestination, infant baptism, and more. Here I am thinking of his “solution” to the Donatist Controversy. As you may already know, the last serious persecution of Manicheans and Christians was that commanded by the pagan emperor Diocletian at the end of the third century, just before the Christian Constantine became Caesar. The trouble was this: during the persecution, a number of bishops knuckled under, renouncing their faith, embracing Caesar-worship, and handing over copies of scripture to be burnt. When the danger was passed, and clergy were in short supply, some of these fair-weather bishops showed up at church waving a white flag with a lot of explaining to do. Many managed to get their old jobs back, after suitable penance, involving public embarrassment. (The penance had to be pretty serious—after all, what these yellowbellies had done was to buy a one-way ticket to the Inferno according to Mark 8:38!)

Others, however, were rudely told to hit the road. These guys had forfeited any right to, e.g., administer the sacraments. It would be the worst kind of farce. It must make a mockery of the sacraments. Even worse, any sacraments they had administered before the persecution and apostasy must be declared null and void! It is no surprise that churches throughout North Africa took sides, resulting in a schism. The stricter group was named for one of its chief leaders, Donatus Magnus. This is where Augustine came in. He tried to come up with a theoretical basis for reconciling the factions. It didn’t go over big. Augustine really just defended the Catholic side and hoped the Donatists would come on board. They didn’t. Here’s what he suggested.

He was apparently less concerned with the hat-in-hand bishops than with the laity who were worried that the absolutions they had received, their church marriages, and their babies’ baptisms were all negated, at considerable peril to their souls. Both priest and people, Augustine reasoned, would be served by his proposal. Let’s take a couple of steps back. First, why are priests ordained at all? They are to administer sacraments and to enable and entitle them to do this they themselves must receive the sacrament of ordination.

Second, what is a sacrament? What is it about a sacrament that requires an ordained priest to administer it? Here is a major point of difference between Catholics and Protestants. The latter regard the ministry as a sacred task, yes, but essentially a profession. The Protestant minister has no greater access to God than the layperson. He is simply trained and skilled for pastoral duties, exactly analogous to a physician or a lawyer. The Catholic priest of course receives much the same training, but the nature of the sacraments adds a crucial element to priesthood. The minister knows his Bible and how to baptize, how to preside over the Lord’s Supper, how to perform weddings and funerals, etc. If a layperson studied up, he could pinch hit for the minister if needed. But it must be an ordained priest to administer the Catholic sacraments because these rites are understood as “means of grace.” Some Protestants use this term, too, but the Catholic belief is that “grace” is a supernatural saving power. (I’d say it’s like the Holy Spirit, but without the personhood.) It is this grace which makes it possible for baptism to cleanse one from Original Sin, which transforms the communion elements into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which effects the absolution of sins. These acts are metaphysical and miraculous, not just symbolic.

Moreover, the priest does not do these things in virtue of his own personal holiness. Likewise, even a saintly layperson dare not administer the sacraments (though there are special cases). The ordained priest is set apart and equipped for his role by his own sacramental anointing.

Augustine reasoned that, since the sacraments are divine works, not human ones, not “works of the flesh,” their value does not depend upon the character of the priest who administers them. The bread and wine become the Body and Blood by divine grace. The power of God, not the personal sanctity of the priest is the electricity; the priest is but the wire along which it travels. So if the priest should turn out to lack holiness or even moral integrity, it wouldn’t affect the sacrament. The sinful priest would be in trouble with God, but he wouldn’t be ruining things for his unsuspecting parishioners. This makes a lot of sense: it is God, not the priest, who is saving and sanctifying you.

But there is an unintended possible consequence of this thinking. It takes only a step or two in the wrong direction and you have a whole clergy establishment in which a sacramental system of divine grace independent of human morality exists side by side with an immoral libertinism. The two come to coexist more and more comfortably. And that’s where we are today. If this were not so, we would have to imagine some insidious secret cabal seeking to infest and subvert a Church that once valued personal sanctity. That would indeed be bad enough, but I think it is worse if the Church hierarchy has, by itself, come to accommodate itself to immoral libertinism as an acceptable norm.

But of course the Church is not the same as God. Or is it?...In the present case, “God” functions as a decoy: “Oh, sure, we have shortcomings, but don’t blame God!” The institutional nature of the Catholic Church, I think, really makes it impossible to distinguish between the two. The ground rules include the belief in a Pope who speaks infallibly when he wants to, together with every Catholic’s obligation to believe and obey this “vicar,” or stand-in, for Jesus Christ. Especially revealing is the belief that there is “no salvation outside the Church.”

Remember the gospel parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1-12)? The religious authorities are portrayed as a group of sharecroppers who refuse to turn over to the land owner his share of the harvest, beating up his representatives and sending them home empty-handed, finally even lynching his son, thinking that, with him out of the way, they will be in line to inherit the vineyard, by virtue of occupation, once the old man dies. But they have counted the owner out too quickly: he sends in armed enforcers to kill the sharecroppers. Then he replaces them with better, more trustworthy sharecroppers. Even so, says Jesus, God is about to take from the corrupt Temple authorities their oversight of the sanctuary and its rituals. Did that happen? Yes; the parable was written after the fact, blaming the Jerusalem priesthood for the Roman destruction of the city and the Temple in 70 CE.

If you applied this parable to the rulers of the Catholic Church, what would it look like? Not violent destruction at the hands of outside powers. At least, I hope not. Let me shift over to a different biblical precedent: the withdrawal of a pious community from a religious body deemed corrupt and the formation of an alternative “church in exile.” A prime case would be that of the Zadokite covenanters of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who disdained the Herodian Temple and its priesthood for perceived unorthodoxy and moral corruption. They organized their own counter-community with its own version of the Torah-prescribed rituals. This is what I humbly suggest happen today.

As long as you continue to identify with the disgustingly corrupt institution of the Catholic Church with its lecherous and hypocritical hierarchy, are you not making excuses for it? By protesting that the Church is yours, not that of these Wicked Tenants, aren’t you just making it easier for them to continue doing what they have always done? If you offer that excuse for remaining, I even wonder if you really understand what Catholicism is! It is a top-down operation, not a bottom-up one.

I’m not saying become a Presbyterian. Start a schism like the Donatists, like the Old Catholic Church, and the Polish National Catholic Church. Preserve your traditions, your rituals, your doctrines. Have your bishops choose a new Pope, an “Antipope” as they used to call them in times of schism. You don’t have to hate anybody. Take your leave prayerfully and amicably.

Better schism than stigma.

too broke to be woke

The young and dumb defense

1. French raises an important point. Does our side have any guiding principles? Is the only principle winning? Are we purely reactionary? 

Social conservatives generally and Christians in particular need to have consistent principles. It can't be sheer expediency. 

2. That said, I'm not as hard on them as French. Most folks aren't philosophers or ethicists, so they reach for whatever argument is available. 

In addition, some ethicists are wretched ethicists, viz. David Gushee, Peter Singer, Judith Jarvis Thomson. Apologists for evil. They don't use philosophy to arrive at their positions, but only to justify their positions. 

3. There's a difference between a position and supporting arguments for a position. The principle isn't the same thing as arguments put forward in defense of the principle. If the arguments change, but are used to defend the same position, then that's not fundamentally unprincipled. 

Mind you, they're not unrelated. If the reasons we give for our position have no actual connection to our position, if we ditch one reason and contrive a new reason, then what's the basis for our position in the first place? Do we even remember why we're supposed to believe it? If we strayed so far from where we began, would we take the same position if this was our entry-point? 

4. I think many conservatives feel that if the good guys always play by the rules while the bad guys break the rules, then the bad guys always win. And this isn't a game. When they win, they dictate how we should live. For instance, blue states are right on the verge of terminating child custody for parents who refuse to subject confused adolescents to puberty blockers and genital mutilation. Likewise, if secular progressives have their way, you'll be fined, fired, or imprisoned if you refuse to capitulate to the LGBT agenda. So you have a lot to lose if you lose. 

5. I think many folks are genuinely conflicted about what to do with juvenile delinquents. On the one hand, it's tragic that someone on the cusp of adulthood can do one appalling thing that will ruin the rest of their life. All things being equal, we want to give people a second chance. 

Many folks think teenagers are impetuous, live in the moment, lack judgment about the long-term consequences of their actions, are easily swayed by peer pressure. We should make allowance for their immaturity. 

On the other hand, when teenagers know that at worst, they will go to juvie jail until they turn 21, they exploit the system. Some of them will commit heinous crimes with impunity. That's intolerable. 

And not just heinous crimes. You can't have an economically stable and sustainable community if looters get a slap on the wrist. If looting becomes rampant, that destroys the economic infrastructure. Life becomes unlivable. 

A permissive policy and punitive policy both have unfortunate side effects. There is no ideal solution. 

6. In addition, I think many folks are even more conflicted about imposing irreparable sanctions on the sexual shenanigans of teenagers. Many parents have, or will have, teenage sons and daughters. And many remember when they were teenagers who did foolish things at parties (and elsewhere). 

In one respect that's a principled position. I'd be a hypocrite to punish you for something I got away with. 

On the other hand, that's dreadful public policy. If I mugged an old lady, should we decriminalize mugging? There are far worse things than hypocrisy. 

7. Majority age is rather arbitrary. The usual compromise is to get tough on heinous juvenile crime. Roguery is a gray area.