HELLO

Whether you're a fan of my OSCARBLOGGER site, or if you're just casting your way 'round the web, I hope you enjoy my new blog: WHISPERING IN A WIND TUNNEL. Here I will discuss issues of politics, religion, race, gay rights, gender, you know, the big stuff.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

WHY NO FEMALE PRESIDENT YET?

Julia Gillard


Earlier this month the New York Times ran an editorial on Julia Gillard, the first female prime minister of Australia; sadly, the latter part of her reign resulted in many blatantly misogynistic attacks on her by political enemies, and when she tried to call these attacks out, she was accused of igniting gender wars by the press (not unlike what conservative commentators said about President Obama when he publicly commented on the Trevon Martin case).  While it's a shame this woman had to suffer through such hostility (how bad did it get?  according to the Times, a local menu offered "Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail — small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box.”),   on the other hand, at least she was able to pave the way for other women, as she herself put it, “What I am absolutely confident of is that it will be easier for the next woman and for the woman after that and the woman after that, and I’m proud of that.”  (On a side note, I'd also like to point out that Gillard is a childless, unmarried atheist, which means, woman or not, she wouldn't get be able to get  anywhere near the White House in America!).

There are currently 82 women in the US House of Representatives and 20 in the Senate, the highest numbers ever for women in congress.  But as a percentage of women in elected national office, that  number makes  only around 19%, putting America at a measly 70th. when compared with the rest of the world when it comes to female representation in national elected office.



And then there's the presidency, again, compared to other industrialized countries, the US lags behind, and even many third world countries like India and Nicaragua  have elected women as presidents or prime ministers.  The US has had only two serious female candidates for the office of Vice president in its history: Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 and Sarah Palin in 2008, both of whom, of course, lost.  And then there's Hillary Clinton, who came close to beating Barak Obama in the Democratic primary in 2008; it looks like she will run in 2016, and if she does, she very well may break the hold that men have had on the White House.
But why does that hold exist?  Why has no woman ever served as President in this country?  Is there something unique about America that causes it to reject the notion of a female president?  I think so: first, there's the issue of religion.  I've already mentioned before that America is the most religious first world country, but it's not just that, it's also the country where religious fundamentalism is at its most powerful. Evangelical Christians make up around 25% of the country's population, but they hold majorities in some states, and groups like The Christian Coalition and The Family Research Council still have a strong influence on the Republican party, especially in the South.  So we have people who believe in the inerrant word of the bible influencing politics in this country, and as anybody who has read it knows, the bible is chock full of misogyny; whether its authors were ancient shepherds or God almighty, one thing is for sure, the book is a product of its time, and that was a time when women were second class citizens at best.  
The sexism of the bible begins in the very first story, with Eve biting the forbidden apple first, and being cursed by God thusly (Genesis 3:16) "In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee."  This continues in other parts of the bible, such as (I Timothy 2:12) "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man." And (Ephesians 5:22) "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord."  In a modern interpretation of the bible, televangelist and Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson said in 1992 "The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women...It is about a Socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy Capitalism and become lesbians" (!).  Laugh all you want at Robinson's absurdly over the top statement, but remember that this is a man who has sat with Presidents and influenced elections in this country.


Nobodies don't wind up on this cover

Therefore, it would not be out of line to say that the sexism found in the bible has had a negative effect on the support for a female President in this country.  But there is another important issue: after World War II, while Europe went about rebuilding its bombed out cities, America, which had faced no attacks on its home front,  became the logical country to stand up to the growing threat of Communism in the USSR  and other countries.  This led to the massive US military build up of the cold war; when the Soviet Union finally collapsed in the late 1980's, America became the world's largest military power.  Today, the country's defense spending is still the highest in the world, and at around $680,000,000 a year,  it more than doubles second place China.  So America's armed forces are the world's largest by far, and remember that the President is constitutionally ranked as the "Commander  in Chief"  of those armed forces.  And let's face it, a female candidate is going to be considered by many voters as  less likely to be an effective commander than a male candidate.  In other countries, with smaller militaries, this isn't as much of an issue, but in the last remaining super power, it inevitably is.  Although history has given us female leaders who have used their militaries (like English Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher invading the Falklands Islands in 1982), I think the stereotype of the "weak" woman still exists.

Hillary Clinton definitely seems aware of this, which may lead to her victory in 2016.  When she was serving in the Senate under President George W Bush, she voted in favor of the Iraq war, knowing that if the war was a success, her vote against it would be seen as a sign of weakness down the road (ironically, that vote came back to haunt her, and may be the main reason why she isn't President right now).  In another telling moment during the primary campaign with Obama, she was asked what she would do if Iran ever attacked Israel with nuclear weapons, and she replied, "In the next 10 years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them. That's a terrible thing to say but those people who run Iran need to understand that, because that perhaps will deter them from doing something that would be reckless, foolish and tragic."  The fact that she used the harsh term "obliterate" was no mistake; she knew that she needed to look tough.  Not that this will definitely work; with Clinton  we are sure to see coded (and not so coded) sexist comments from conservative pundits attacking her as being too weak to properly defend the country.  Conservatives have always attacked Democratic candidates as not being strong enough, and having a Democratic female candidate will be an irresistible target for the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of the world.  
Whether those attacks prove to be effective remains to be seen. One thing is for sure,  as religion becomes less of an issue in this country, and the cold war (and even the war on terror) becoming more of a memory, the two hurdles facing a female Presidential candidate I mentioned above are becoming less potent than they once were, and America will have a female President sometime in the near future. And more than likely, whether good or bad, Republican or Democrat, the rest of the world will be saying one thing: "It's about time."

Friday, July 26, 2013

BUT WHY SO RIGHT WING?



I once heard an interview with an American journalist who was traveling in the country of Denmark around the time of the American 2000 presidential election.  He spoke to a man who was a member of the Conservative People's Party in Denmark, and when he asked the man whether he wanted Democrat Al Gore or Republican George W Bush to win the presidency, the man replied Al Gore.  When the journalist asked him how he could want Gore to win when he was a member of the Conservative People's Party, the man replied "the most right wing party in Denmark is to the left of your Democrats."
In my last post, I wrote about how one's political beliefs are often influenced by what part of the country you're born in and whether or not your ancestors farmed or herded.  But even given those factors, it still is surprising not just how big the divide between progressives and conservatives is, but also just how far to the right conservatives are in this country.  Although there are a handful of moderate conservatives left, the majority clearly seem to be extreme; here's a good example, every other industrialized nation in the world has a national health care plan, and while no plan is perfect, most of those countries are happy overall with their plans (last year, the Olympic games in England opened with a musical tribute to their national health system!).  And yet when president Obama attempted to reform America's health care system to be more in line with that of other countries, the response from the right was vociferous to say the least.  Town hall meetings on the issue degenerated into screaming matches.  In a truly crazy moment, one protestor compared Obamacare to a plan by Adolph Hitler, while talking to the openly gay, jewish Obamacare supporting congressman Barney Frank.  Eventually, a watered down bill was passed, but not with one Republican vote, and it was accompanied by protestors who chanted "kill the bill" to the delight of the congressional Republicans.  And despite it being the law of the land, the Republican party has still refused to accept it, with house Republicans voting to overturn it a stunning thirty-seven times (so far).
A recent poll says it all: a majority of registered Democrats and Independents want politicians to compromise, but Republicans do not.  Let's go back to the year 2000 again to take a look at that  difference in action.  Whether or not George W Bush legitimately won the contested state of Florida is something we may never know, but it is an undeniable fact that Al Gore won the popular vote by over half a million votes; it would, therefore, not have been out of line for the congressional Democrats to oppose every piece of legislation Bush proposed, and block every cabinet nomination, saying that he had no real mandate from the voters.  But they didn't; even before the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Democrats showed a willingness to accept and work with Bush, with some of them even voting in favor of his tax cuts.  Fast forward eight years to the election of Obama; unlike Bush, his victory could not be contested, and yet right from the start there was outspoken opposition to him.  In the senate, Republicans used  the filibuster to block so many of the president's nominations for cabinet and judge positions, that he now has had to deal with more filibusters than every president before him combined! Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell famously said "The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president."  Meanwhile, rumors that the president was born in Kenya and not Hawaii spread like wildfire on the right, until the president himself had to display his long form birth certificate.  And still the rumors persist; although none of this was enough to defeat his reelection, the continued obstructions from the Republican party clearly show that they do not want to compromise in any way.
And none of this kind of thing is new; during the Clinton years the Rev. Jerry Falwell appeared on his TV show peddling videotapes that claimed that the president was dealing drugs and calling out hits like a mob boss when he was governor of Arkansas, and in 1994, when Newt Gingrich became speaker of the house of representatives, he held a press conference in which he implied that the president was no longer relevant.   And in the context of all this, we see study after study showing that since 1979 the poor and the middle class have been standing still or losing ground economically while the rich have been accumulating more wealth and power.  It's gotten so bad that the US leads the industrialized world in uneven distribution of wealth, with the now infamous 1% of the population earning around 35% of the country's total income.   And yet Republicans still say that taxes on the rich are too high.  How do they get away with this?  Why do average people in the US accept such huge gulfs of wealth and privilege, ones that threaten to turn America into a third world nation? (If we aren't there already.)

Here's the kind of story that illustrates how much like a third world country America sometimes seems: the New York Times recently reported that every year in Tennessee, people who are quite poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, but who still have high medical bills, can apply for state aid.  The way that applications are received is through a government hot line, which inevitably is jammed with phone calls and only open for a certain amount of time.  Is this really how the wealthiest nation in the world should be dealing with people's health care issues?  By distributing aid like a radio DJ giving out tickets to a Jay Z concert?  It's hard to know whether or not to laugh or cry at that kind of story.


I am a liberal; in fact, I'm a European Socialist.  I honestly believe that if the US were more like Europe and Canada, the average American would be better off.  The fact is, generally, people in those countries are healthier and live longer, and have less poverty and crime to worry about,  many of them even provide national daycare.  America is the best place in the world to live for that 1%, who can live in gated communities, send their children to private schools, and pay for the best doctors when they need them.  For the rest of us, the country is a mixed bag; a good place that could be better.
But what's different about America?  What makes us unique among first world countries in accepting such high rates of poverty?  I believe that it is the sad legacy of slavery, which lasted much longer here than it did in Europe; the tragic fact of the matter is that  countries that have robust social safety nets had the least amount of ethnic diversity when those nets were put in place.  A depressing fact of human nature is that people are more willing to help the poor when those poor people look like them.




In the US,  if one looks at the demographic statistics, the single strongest conservative voting group are blue collar white males.  These are not rich people, these are men who don't gain by tax cuts for the rich, and who would benefit from strong unions, so why do they continually vote against their own economic interest?  Because the rich and the powerful in this country have figured out that by dividing poor and middle class people by race, they can get poor and middle class white people to vote for politicians who will allow them to keep more of their wealth and power.  They have effectively convinced those blue collar white males that any kind of government assistance for the poor is just taking money out of the hands of hard working white people and giving it to lazy nonwhite people.
The political changes in this country over the years rule this out: for decades after the Civil War, the Southern states were all strongly for the  Democrats, but then the arrival of the civil rights movement changed that, and in 1964 when Democratic president Lydon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Voting Act, white southerners turned on the Democratic party, with the Republicans waiting with open arms.  This lead to what came to be know as the Southern strategy, described in a 1970 interview by Richard Nixon's political strategist Kevin Philips in this way:"The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That's where the votes are."

David Duke

And that kind of nod to negative racial stereotypes would just continue from the Republicans: while running for president in 1976, Ronald Reagan often told a story about a young welfare mother in Chicago who was making $150,000 a year off the government.  The story behind this woman is murky, and she is far from representative.  He also referred to a potential food stamp cheat as a “strapping young buck”.  Later, as president he would veto sanctions against the white supremacist South African Apartheid government and give a speech defending that government.  His successor, George Bush, used a political ad against his opponent that played on racial fears.  In 1991, a Republican named David Duke, a former wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, ran for governor of Louisiana; the Republican party understandably attempted to repudiate him, but his stands on most issues mirrored theirs. Although he lost that election, he stunningly received a  majority of the white vote.  You want recent examples?  In the run up to the 2012 presidential election, Newt Gingrich referred to president Obama as a "food stamp president", and said ".. I'm prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I'll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps."  The obvious implication is that most people on food stamps are African American, and that they don't work.  Neither of these things are true (The center on budget and policy priorities states that one third of food stamp recipients are African American, while Forbes magazine points out that 30% of people on food stamps work, and another 32% are elderly or disabled), but that didn't stop Republican audiences from cheering him when he defended the statement in a debate.  And don't get me started on recent voting restriction laws that are brazenly intended to limit the African American vote.  Not only is this form of race baiting offensive, it's also wrong.  The largest federal government anti-poverty program in America is not welfare, food stamps or medicaid, it's social security. The enormously popular social security program was founded in 1935 to aid impoverished people who were too old to work, and is obviously not based on benefiting one race over another.  Another interesting fact is that many of the red states that claim to hate the federal government get more money each year in federal programs like social security, medicare and medicaid than they pay in Federal taxes, so they're being bailed out by the same government they say they despise.
I should mention  that conservatives have found other wedge issues over the years to convince those blue collar white men(and women) to turn out for them; Thomas Frank, in his book WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS described the three g's, God, Guns and Gays as the three big issues that connected with working poor Republicans in the 90's.  So, it's not just coded race baiting that gets those voters out.
The good news is that  the days of these kind of attacks by conservatives are quickly fading, as older Republican voters are passing away, to be replaced by a younger, more open generation who don't fall for  the same tricks.  And the changing demographics of America, with white people becoming a smaller group, is doing them no favors.  Clearly, the Republican party knows this, as they have made some attempts to appeal to non white voters, although, sadly, they seem more concerned with passing those voter ID bills.  Still, I'm optimistic for the future of this country, because I think we can slowly evolve into a more egalitarian society as more and more poor and middle class people call for better heath care, schools and aid for the impoverished.  The conservatives are fading away, but, as we all know, they won't go quietly.

In conclusion, let me quote an extremely wise man who wrote something in 1949 that's strikingly relevant today:

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature. The consequence is that the representatives of the people do not in fact sufficiently protect the interests of the underprivileged sections of the population. Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

                                            -Albert Einstein, 
                                             from the essay WHY SOCIALISM?


Thursday, July 25, 2013

IS FREE WILL AN ILLUSION? PT. 2, POLITICAL BELIEFS


In my last two posts,  I asked the knotty question of whether or not religious faith or lack thereof was a matter of free will.  Now that that big question is behind us, (not for good, mind you) let's ask another tricky question: are one's political beliefs something we are born with?  Do we come to our political conclusions through careful consideration of the issues (like we like to think we do), or do we simply have inherent, inborn biases that make those conclusions foregone decisions?
This question becomes even more difficult when one looks at the electoral map above and realizes how little change there has been in the red and blue columns over the years; that is, the Republican red states have been red for years, and the Democratic blue states have been blue for years.  There's been so little change in most of them that, during recent presidential elections, California and Texas are almost completely ignored by the candidates (except as fundraising cash machines) despite their large populations.  Why?  Because our winner take all electoral system means that once a candidate wins a state, they get all of that state's electoral votes, and the winners of Texas and California are known well in advance.  So candidates focus almost entirely on so called swing states, that is, those few states that may go either way.

The Prez

But why is that the case?  Why are most red states so red and most blue states so blue?  If people make political choices based on examining the issues and the candidates, why do so many people in one region of the country come down strongly on one side and people in another region on the opposite?

In his fascinating book THE BETTER ANGLES OF OUR NATURE, WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED, writer Steven Pinker puts out an interesting theory that makes a lot of sense to me.  It all goes back to the original British settlers of America; the northern areas were mostly settled by English farmers, while the southern parts were settled by Scots-Irish cattle ranchers and herders.  These two different methods of survival led to different life styles: if you're a farmer, no one can just swoop in and steal your farmland overnight (they could take your crops, but not the land itself), if, however you're a person who's livelihood lies in livestock, it is entirely possible that some thief in the night could make off with all your valued goods, leaving you destitute.  Add to that the fact that in those early settler days, the nearest law authority figure was often miles away, and you can see why herders  created a different culture than farmers.  For a herder, buying a gun meant more than hunting, it was for protecting one's valuable livestock, hence the pervasive gun culture and the attitude of violent retribution that goes with it, that still exists in so many red states. Along with building a strong gun culture, herders also built a strong honor system as a way to deter criminals, which explains why so many low down villains in old westerns are horse thieves and cattle rustlers.  Another factor was the fact that herder communities usually lived in isolated, mountainous regions, which led to a general distrust of strangers, because any outsider might be a potential thief.  Again, this has echoes today in the conservative mindset (promoted by conservative thinkers like David Brooks and Thomas Sowell), that has a Tragic Vision of human nature, one that thinks things like a strong military and harsh criminal punishment (with a death penalty), tempered by the good influence of the church,  are needed to control the base animalistic nature that drives people to do bad things.  The state of Texas is a good example of this; when one thinks of Texas, we think of a big gun culture, a strong sense of honor ("don't mess with Texas!"), conservative politics, and a stronger belief in the death penalty than any other state.  They're also famous for their ranching history, with expressions like "big hat, no cattle" coming from there, not to mention a college football team named the longhorns, who's mascot is a bull.  It would seem that these two aspects of Texas society have fed on each other over the years.



So, the culture that our ancestors marinated in and passed down from generation to generation still effects us to this day, even when most of us are no longer farmers or ranchers.  And these attitudes go beyond politics:   I'm a northern born liberal, and I once had a job with a  boss who was a mid western born conservative.  Although we got along well despite our political differences, it never failed to amaze me just how much she lived in fear, and how little she would trust people she didn't know.  I remember when I told her that I was going to a training school to learn how to teach English to people in other countries with the intention of traveling, the first words out of her mouth was a stern warning about how the people at the training school might use me as a drug mule.  Not, "how interesting" or, "good luck with that", no, it was straight to the fear that people who took the time to open a training school for teaching English were really drug runners!  This also explains why the conservative media seems so over the top in its messages to those who aren't conservative; when they say Barak Obama "hates America" and wants to "destroy it", they're playing to the increased fear response in their conservative audience.
Back in 1992, conservative political figure Pat Buchanan may have inadvertently helped Bill Clinton's presidential campaign when he announced in frightening tones that there was a "culture war" going on in America at the Republican convention scaring moderate voters away from the Republican party.  As much as I hate to agree with Buchanan on anything, he may have been on to something there, in that there is a  deep divide that separates this country. It really does seem that there are two very different cultures at war in America, with two distinct views of the world that rarely can agree on anything.  So when a liberal sees undocumented immigrants who came to the US out of economic necessity to do tough jobs that Americans don't want to, a conservative looks at the same group of people and sees illegal immigrants who snuck in our country to suck up our welfare programs and deal drugs.  Sadly, these different world views often lead to national gridlock, in which both sides of an issue dig in and refuse to compromise, leaving a country where only local governments, usually dominated by one party, can get anything done.   And this all may be because of dyed in the wool beliefs we gained as children raised in one part of the country or the other. As with religious belief, free will  seems to take a back seat to forces beyond our individual control in our political outlook, muddying the waters of the entire concept of personal self determination.

The Loyal Opposition


Ah, but there is a glimmer of hope!  In 2004, George W Bush won reelection as president, despite the increasingly unpopular Iraq war, partly by promoting a constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage, which had little support at that time.  But in nine short years, there has been a sea change on this issue in this country, with public opinions polls slowly but surely showing a movement towards support for gay marriage.  This appears to be inevitable as more and more people come out of the closet, and some of those people are friends and family members of conservatives.  Former vice president Dick Cheney and senator Rob Portman are two of the most prominent republicans to support gay marriage, and in both cases it's because they have children who are gay; simply put, it's easy to hate gay activists who live far away in San Francisco, it's much harder to hate someone you know and love.  Even the conservative arguments against gay marriage have gotten weaker and weaker, from shouts of "marriage is under assualt!" to vague mumblings about "redefining marriage".  Perhaps there is some chance for America after all, when conservatives can give up their natural distrust of strangers by realizing that every gay and lesbian person in the world is somebody's  son or daughter. We'll see.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

SAME STIMULUS, DIFFERENT RESPONSE

In my first post, I discussed how it may be possible that religious belief or lack there of may be heavily influenced by our specific brain chemistry, and therefore essentially beyond our control.  Now let's looks at what I feel is an interesting example of that influence in action.



Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both, interestingly enough, born on the same day (Febuary 10th, 1809), but more importantly, they are obviously two of the most influential people of their era, men whose huge shadows still hang over the world; indeed, they are so ingrained in the public's consciousness that the mere evoking of their names raises certain ideas and images in the mind.  While both men still have their detractors (Darwin more than Lincoln), they are undeniably brilliant and important men.  And for the purpose of this essay, they both had a complicated relationship with religious faith.
While he was raised in a Calvinist family, when he grew into a young man, Lincoln, was clearly skeptical about religion and pointedly kept his opinions to himself.  Darwin, on the other hand, was raised as a Unitarian and seriously considered becoming a parson at one point.  It was only his interest in science and his reading of William Paley's book NATURAL THEOLOGY (which, ironically enough, argued for a divine hand in the progress of nature) that lead him on his historical scientific journey.


But then for both men, tragedy struck later in life.  For Lincoln, it was the death of his son Willie in 1862, probably from Typhoid, who was only 11.  Lincoln was, by all reports, a doting father who was despondent over the death of his son.  Several people reported that he openly admitted that his son's death changed his mind about religion. "The good lord has called him home", he is claimed to have said, "I know that he is much better off in heaven."  From then on, he began to weave more religious references into his speeches, even implying that god had a hand in the civil war.  Clearly, religion brought this man solace in his grief.
Darwin, on the other hand, had grown more and more cynical about religion as he studied the natural world.  And then, in 1851, his daughter Annie died from scarlet fever at the age of 9.  Like Lincoln, Darwin was a devoted father who was devastated by his child's death.  But unlike Lincoln, his daughter's death did not cause him to rethink and embrace religion, and may have played a hand in pushing him even further away from it.  The same spiritual belief that comforted Lincoln did nothing for Darwin.

So there you have it, two geniuses, living at the same time and growing up in Christian cultures, who became giants in their fields, and who both suffered the same tragedy and wound up being pushed in opposite directions.  I would say that this illustrates that the human brain is adaptable, malleable and, of course unique in each of us, and therefore impossible to predict or understand in the fundamental matter of belief.
A clear argument for both men's reactions can be made: Lincoln found comfort in believing that his son lived on at the right hand of god, and that someday they would be reunited.  Darwin couldn't believe that a caring, loving supreme being would be so cruel as to let die an innocent child who brought such joy and light into the world.
Mourning and grief are such difficult issues, especially when that mourning is being done by a parent for a young child, that any kind of debate becomes difficult.  While I'm an atheist, if I were to meet a person who had lost a young child and used faith and religion as a coping method, I couldn't possibly challenge them on that issue; I would merely smile and nod and accept that their faith was helping them through a difficult time.  Conversely, would even the most religious person be able to argue with someone in the same situation, who says that the death of their child caused them to lose their faith? Wouldn't they, like me with the religious person, probably accept that person's view point without challenge or counter argument?
 Losing a child is such a terrible tragedy (perhaps the worst possible), and something that each person who suffers through it must deal with in his or her own way, making spiritual debates even more emotional than usual.  Once again, it appears that many of the things we believe or don't believe in life are guided by our life experiences and individual brain chemistry, and therefore beyond any real choice on our part.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

IS FREE WILL AN ILLUSION? PT.1, FAITH

Alright, this is the first real post of my new blog, so let's jump right in, shall we?  The topic is free will, and in this case we will examine how it relates  to religious belief.  Let me say right off the top: I'm an atheist.  Now, that's unusual in America, which is by far the most religious country in the industrialized world, but it's not so unusual where I reside, which is in San Francisco, the city that has the lowest rate of regular church goers in the nation (26%).  Whether that fact is further proof of San Francisco being a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah, or if it just shows that we embrace reason more than the rest of the country, I'll leave up to you.
But here's the interesting part: I wasn't always an atheist.  As a child, I was raised in the Episcopalian faith, and my parents took me to church every Sunday.  I also attended a Lutheran grade school, which taught religion as a class (something I still don't understand, how exactly does one grade religious belief?), and which made us attend a special church service every Wednesday morning (which ain't the Sabbath, but whatever).  While I was never a fundamentalist (neither church nor school pushed that very hard), I was most definitely a Christian.  I strongly believed in the divinity of Jesus, and along with being baptized, I also celebrated a first communion at age six (awful young to start on wine, but it's just a sip.) and  I was confirmed at the age of twelve (if you don't know what confirmation is, it's a bible/faith class you attend with your priest and a few other kids your age that lasts about a month and ends with you taking a written test about your faith.  It's like  a bar mitzvah, except less work and a way lamer party at the end).  Yes,  I was definitely into Jesus as a child, but then something happened.

No, not that

I began to become more cynical about religion at around the age of fifteen; part of this was because my parents stopped dragging me to church each week, but something else was afoot.  The entire belief system of religion began to seem more and more ridiculous to me; while I'd always had trouble with the Adam and Eve story, now I began to question other parts of the bible too.  My skeptical nature grew, and it was fueled by the tenor of the times; this was in the 1980's, at a time when Jerry Falwell and the moral majority were rising in power and influence, and laughable TV preachers and faith healers flooded the networks (Ok, not so much the local channels in San Francisco).  Finding these people and their beliefs repulsive deepened my loss of faith.  Finally, at the age of seventeen,  I saw an interview with Science Fiction author Isaac Asimov on TV in which he talked movingly about being an atheist, and I  found myself not only agreeing with him, but uplifted by that fact as well.  It was a spiritual awakening without any spirit.   The atheist had landed.  And I should mention that I didn't embrace atheism with any anger towards religious people (other than Falwell and co.) or rebellion against my parents (who are still religious, but who, to their credit, took my conversion without hostility).


So, like most people who are raised religious and then turn on their religion in adulthood, I use terms like KNOWLEDGE, SCIENCE, REASON and other words that make me look smart to describe my change. But, to return to the idea of free will,  I must admit there is another factor that could be at play here.  Like I said, I began to be cynical about religion when I was fifteen.  Now what else happened to me when I was fifteen? Puberty.  As we all know, when you hit puberty, your body goes through big physical changes, changes that will really effect who you are as a person, and that include definite changes in the brain as well as the body.  New hormones that can and do effect behavior are produced and dumped into your skull willy nilly.  Now, is it possible that this change in brain chemistry is what caused me to reject religion?  Is religious faith or lack thereof linked to certain chemical reactions in the brain that are beyond our control?  Are some people just born more likely to believe than others?  The answer to all these questions is a simple, big fat Maybe.
Certainty in this issue is impossible, but a genetic tendency to believe would explain why atheists and religious people can argue for so long with no clear winner or change in either opinion; it may be just too much of who we are, an intrinsic part of our being.  If you ask a strongly religious person what it would take for them to stop believing, the usual reply is "nothing could do that."  Conversely, I can't imagine believing in God anytime in my lifetime unless  I see an absolute 100% certain miracle which could only be attributed to God, and that's highly unlikely, so I'm as stuck in my ways as the religious person.
There are, however, people who's faith or lack thereof changes when they're well past puberty and  into  adulthood, ( Here's a link to an article about a former Pentecostal preacher who lost his faith ) but even then, it could possibly just be a change in their brain chemistry that occurred as they aged, or perhaps even the development of a tumor, so that still proves nothing.  Equally interesting is the role that gender plays; 3.6 percent of men in the US call themselves atheists, and only 1.2 of women; although those numbers are higher in other countries, the gender disparity remains.  So does the differences in brain functioning between men and women play a role in belief?  It would appear so.
Another interesting idea that arises is that if faith relies on brain chemistry, could an artificial change to that chemistry alters one's beliefs?  Could a pill be developed that could make an atheist into a believer, or vice versa?  If such a pill existed, who would take it?  If someone was a Christian who believed all non believers are going to hell, could they morally argue that such a pill should be mandatory for others to take?  Could they force it upon their non believing friends and relatives?  How about dumping it in the drinking water?(Attention Hollywood, there's a movie plot for you.)  The invention of such a drug is not out of the realm of future possibility, and obviously the moral ramifications are complicated.

And then there's yet another complication; I've already mentioned that America is far more religious than other first world countries.  If being born in a certain place makes you more likely to have some kind of faith, then obviously there must be more at work than brain chemistry. It would appear that individual belief, like so many things in life, is the result of that delicate mix of unique genetics and upbringing that we all have.

One possibility when it comes to comparing America's faith to other industrialized nations is that the US has a higher poverty rate than most other such countries, and that impoverished people are more likely to look to the church for needs both physical and spiritual.  Any listing of religious nations will clearly show that the higher the poverty rate, the more likely the people are to be religious.


One thing I will say for sure is that I and my fellow atheists in the world need to be respectful of  people of faith even as we question them; we should always remember that the brain is very compartmentalized, and that the part of the brain dealing with logic and reason, and the part of the brain dealing with faith and belief are separate and distinct sections that don't always work together.  It's entirely possible for a person to be logical and rational in some things and not others.  There are, of course, religious scientists and doctors, just as there are illogical atheists.  (I would add Ann Rand to that list).
So, as always when this topic is debated, a simple question remains, which this post is named after, and for which there is no definite answer.
And that's just part 1 of the free will debate...

GREETINGS



  For now,  let me just ask that you read here with an open mind. With luck I may interest, amuse, provoke, and yes, possibly infuriate all kinds of people out there in internet land.  Please enjoy, and feel free to comment, but try to keep the conversation civil.