How I Was Not Quite Right About Tomi Lahren

Tomi Lahren has been on my radar for a while now. I know her best from short videos shared on FB by my more conservative friends. The stylized typewriter intro to her signature segment, “Final Thoughts” is something I’ve seen more times than I care to remember. I don’t remember how, but I started thinking of her content as politically conservative punditry in new media – condemning BLM for being party to riots, refuting 3rd wave feminist talking points like the wage gap, speaking about the need for children to be safe from crossdressing predators. When I saw them, I felt like I knew the arguments already, so I continued scrolling. I didn’t think she added much to the conversation. I  honestly thought she was nothing more than a younger, better looking conservative pundit, useful for churning out three minute “mic drop” talks so that barely literate, incredibly partisan people can announce their political conservatism on social media. I thought she was completely polar, and so I kind of put her in that box and didn’t think about it again. Barely literate, incredibly partisan people on the left have their own social media heroes, in case you think I’m saying that conservatives are barely literate by nature.

She appeared on the Daily Show and, according to her fans, completely SHUT DOWN Trevor Noah; MIC DROPs were happening left and right. Hyperbole aside, I have seen clips of it, and it looks rather like she got the better of Noah on many points. From the clips I’ve seen, I also get the feeling there was a bit of the “talking past one another” that I complained about in my last post. From this appearance, if not from the frequency of shares I’d seen, it’s clear that her profile was rising at this point.

Then Bill Maher. Now The View. Network television. She’s a star now. Was Glenn Beck ever on The View? Turns out, yes, he was. Not that The View is anything more than disposable daytime TV, but they have a big audience, and this probably meant exposure to lots of people who aren’t New Media savvy for Tomi.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear that Tomi was pro-choice, because it went against the grain. To go against the majority of the people that you politically identify with takes thought and a fair amount of courage.  I recall Dave Rubin bemoaning the tendency of people to simply go along with every position of their chosen party. For example, (with apologies to Dave, I’m paraphrasing) if I know your position on same sex marriage, I should not be able to predict your position on gun control, or abortion, or climate change, but in many cases, you can. Should your position on one issue be a 100% indicator of your position on the other ones? Are you allowed to have a different position than the expected result?

As I’ve found out, her position on reproductive rights isn’t exactly new. To quote the New York Times: “She is pro-choice and does not object to gay marriage.” But I guess most people didn’t read that story either, because her View appearance and the reaction by The Blaze made headlines.

So, now The Blaze is suspending her. For disagreeing with them on an issue? What’s she supposed to do, change her position? I find it odd that this had never come up before on The Blaze during her meteoric rise. A rise which, it should be noted, raises the profile of The Blaze. They must have enjoyed a bump from her popularity. This ideological difference leaves The Blaze in a conundrum: how severely can they afford to punish their new star? Can you name someone else at The Blaze, other than Glenn Beck? I can’t.

Abortion is an issue that people have very strong feelings about. If The Blaze, or Tomi, for that matter, really wants to be ideologically consistent, this might be a dealbreaker between them.

I mentioned Dave Rubin earlier. He used to be part of The Young Turks, but left them because of ideological reasons. Now he’s got a great show of his own on YouTube, based around the idea of people finding areas of agreement and improving your understanding of differing positions. If Tomi Lahren wants to go solo, this might be a good time to do it. She’s a legit star, appearing all over media, this big story about her disagreement with The Blaze’s party line puts her in the spotlight while emphasizing her status as a person who thinks for herself. As of yet I’m not a fan, but this story has given me a reason to reconsider.

 

 

The Principle of Charity

Have you had a disagreement with anyone recently? Did you feel that all participants were understood by one another? Here’s a test: Could your opponent(s) state your position in a way that you would be satisfied with how they describe it? Could you do the same for your opponent(s)? If the answer to either of those is a flat “no,” you are like most normal people having these conversations. I’ve had conversations over social media lasting weeks where I never once felt that my interlocutor wanted to understand where I was coming from. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking past one another” and it’s impeding conversations at every turn.

There are two basic facts that were very, very hard for me to recognize (and I still need to remind myself of them today). Here they are:

1. People have different positions than you do.

2. People think they have good reasons for holding those positions.

Note the word “think” in number 2. I’m talking about everyone. I could not claim that everyone has good reasons for thinking what they think. I can only go so far as to say that they think they have good reasons. They can be wrong about those reasons, whether it’s from poor facts or poor reasoning.

I was browsing /r/philosophy earlier, and I found something that I really think needs sharing. In their Guide to Arguments on the sidebar, they talk about the principle of charity. I’ve highlighted the important bits in red:

charity

 

That says it better than I’m able to, so I think this is about it. If we can apply this principle as we have conversations, we might be able to gain a greater understanding of each other.

The War on Christmas

Earlier this week I saw an article on Breitbart talking about how the “War on Christmas” has a new front: the growing number of Bible scholars that believe Jesus never existed, so referenced in a Big Think article. Having read about this and watched a few Bart Ehrman and Richard Carrier lectures, this was not news to me. Here, I want to first address this fiction known as the “War on Christmas”, then talk about the flaws in both articles.

The War on Christmas

People have become aware that overt use of “Christmas” excludes people that do not celebrate the holiday. Government entities are, or should be, prevented from referencing “Christmas”, as it violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Where private businesses are concerned, they are free to say or not say Merry Christmas or whatever. Many large chains have taken to the more inclusive “Happy Holidays” in the interest of not being accused of excluding people. The phrase, “Happy Holidays” includes all people, including people for whom December 25th represents the birthday of one third of the trinity of deities that they worship.

Christians have wrongly claimed that this practice of inclusion is an affront to their particular holiday and religion. They forget about people of other faith traditions that have holidays around that same time. Their major argument in this vein is an Appeal to Tradition, e.g., “That’s the way it’s always been,” paired with heartstring-tugging Appeals to Emotion. So many people, especially in the US, have this shared memory of Christmas being the most magical and beautiful and loving-est thing that there could be. Indeed, there are few things as comforting to the late 20th century American psyche as the images of Christmas depicted in A Christmas Story, Miracle on 34th Street, and It’s a Wonderful Life, not to mention the works of Norman Rockwell.

My own childhood is filled with these kinds of memories from real life: get the family together, have a big meal, open presents, play in the snow. And, yeah, probably go to church. Maybe we didn’t go to the Midnight Mass on the 24th, being little kids and all, but we went to Christmas Day Mass as good little Catholic children. The pageantry of the Catholic Mass, especially at Christmastime, added more magic to my kid-mind.

People appear to be conflating their good Christmas memories with the religious belief that, in their view, undergirds them. It’s extremely easy to associate traditions such as a decorated fir tree, giving gifts and whatnot with Christmas because of branding: It’s a Christmas tree, those are Christmas presents. The truth is that those traditions have no basis in Christian doctrine. If the birth of Jesus were celebrated at some other time of the year, say March, when some scholars think he was actually born (if he existed at all, but that’s for another time), would sleighbells, fir trees, and sweaters be part of the celebration?

Christmas has become a cultural holiday rather than a religious one. The proof of that is in non-Christian cultures that have adopted many of the traditions, such as gift giving and the style of decoration. I lived in Taiwan for three years. Christians are definitely a minority there. Yet, all the children know who Santa Claus is and they talk about getting presents on December 25th.

How Breitbart Got it Wrong

This isn’t new. There have long been historians and scholars claiming that Jesus never existed and that the story was made up. It’s laughable that the scholars holding this fringe position are being cast as bannermen to the cause that brought us plain red Starbucks cups and employee policies on greeting people.

The fallacious nature of this connection cannot be overstated. In one case, you have a group of scholars, who at least claim to be sincere seekers of the truth, finding less than convincing evidence of the historical Jesus. In that group there may be, as it says in the article, “atheists with an axe to grind.” To the extent that those scholars are blinded by their biases, they should be ignored. Their goal is to produce legitimate work in their field while also selling books and doing lectures, and maybe, just maybe, affect change in the consensus among Bible scholars and ancient historians.

On the other side, you have the aforementioned secular appeals to inclusion as intended by the Establishment Clause. There’s no coordination between these two parties.

Big Think Also Got it Wrong

By using “growing number” in the title of their piece, they make it sound like it’s bigger than it is, like it’s about to reach critical mass. The same could be said of the phrasing of the opening sentence of the third paragraph: “More and more, historians and bloggers alike are questioning whether the actual man called Jesus existed.” At first glance, it sounds like they are claiming that there are more and more historians and bloggers flocking to this position, but that’s not quite it, is it? The comma after “More and more,” indicates that they are referring to a degree rather than a number. To see what I mean, imagine there’s no comma and compare how it sounds to the sentence as written.

Also, “bloggers?” This is the internet. Every idiot out there has a blog. Just as the number of people (much smaller than anticipated) who visit the Ark Encounter doesn’t make Young Earth Creationism true, so does the number of “bloggers” promoting the Jesus Myth not matter with regard to scholarly consensus. Some of those bloggers may be credentialed and have opinions worth sharing on the subject, but that isn’t implied by the title of “blogger.”

To a brandy-new atheist who just discovered Hitchens, this Big Think article might sound like a huge blow to Theism, if not the knockout punch. However, reading the full article reveals that it’s not nearly so overwhelming as the title makes it sound. There are definitely arguments to be made on both sides, or at least it appears that there are educated people on both sides making arguments. In fact, it seems like the “Mythical Jesus” position is and will likely remain a fringe position in the scholar community for some time.

Big Think could have been honest about this fact from the start. We should want Big Think to be more evenhanded about this, and the fact that Breitbart got a front page article out of it is a perfect example of why. The slight exaggeration in Big Think’s title and that sentence are cannon fodder, allowing dishonest content creators on the other side to put a spotlight on it and say, “See? Look how dishonest these people are.” and continue confirming what their readers have long known about secular people.

Conclusion

In the end, Breitbart are dead wrong on two counts: 1. There never was a War on Christmas, only people who wanted to include non-Christians into society. 2. The minority of scholars who believe Jesus never existed has nothing to do with the first group. Big Think are guilty of overplaying their hand slightly, which is the lesser of the two infringements in this case.

I haven’t read much from Breitbart, though I have heard people speak highly of them. I hope they don’t approach all news stories with the same obvious bias. Speaking of bias, they’re not the only ones here. I used to be subbed to Big Think on YouTube. I especially liked their longer videos, around 45 minutes, on topics such as demographics, psychology, and the universe. Their shorter vids would feature well known people espousing atheist, or at the very least, secular opinions. Only after considering their catalog carefully do I detect a bias on their part.

It’s much easier for me, as an atheist, to see Breitbart’s article and roll my eyes. But I think the more important work is looking at the Big Think article and imagining how Breitbart’s readers might have read it, then asking, “Do they have a point?” For critical thinking’s sake, we have to do this.

Europe: A History by Norman Davies, Part One

So I’ve been wanting to develop the reading habit more, so I cracked a book that’s been sitting for a while on my shelf. Norman Davies’ Europe: A History is my first attempt at reading one of these kinds of books live. I’ve listened to a couple books by Diamond and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization, but reading live takes a different level of effort. Audiobooks only require your time. For me, it’s driving time. Every day, one commute at a time, I whittle away at the book. The only things that can keep me from it is the odd phone call or just not feeling like hitting the button.

Image result for europe a history

In one volume, Davies attempts to tell the massive story of European history. He starts with a lengthy introduction of how to even go about it. As someone new to history books, I found this useful. The different framing methods and other authors who have attempted to put it all in one book. Another section of the introduction that I enjoyed most because I’d never thought of it: where does Europe end and Asia begin? Where’s the northern border?  The fluctuating European border theory gave me a chuckle. It was the first hint of the wry academic humor that shows up from time to time in the book. It has the benefit of being unexpected while not being out of character. It’s the sort of thing that you might miss if you tuned out during that paragraph. Finally, to round out the intro, Davies lays out how the book is going to go: The further forward in time we go, the slower we proceed. In other words, the closer we get to the present, the more information will be covered about each time period. Which makes sense if you consider the sources available through history. Sure, there are outliers, but on average, the earlier you get, the less primary sources there are, the less archaeology there is, the less detail there is to write about.

The first chapter gives a geographical foundation, setting the scene as it were. The Mediterranean, the mountains, the rivers, all have a hand in shaping the way people lived on the landmass. Davies doesn’t go so far as to invoke environmental determinism here, but attention is paid to how the various geographical features could be exploited. There was a section on the steppes, the plains in the far Eastern edge of what could be called Europe or could be verging into Asia. In that section, there is a poem shared, displaying the love the forbears of modern Ukraine have for the land:

When I die, make me a grave

High on an ancient mound,

In my own beloved Ukraine,

In the steppeland without bound,

Whence one sees the endless breadth of the wheatfields

And the steep banks of Dnipro’s shore,

Where one may sense the surging

River’s stentorian roar.

Make my grave there – and arise,

Sundering your chains.

Bless your freedom with the blood

Of foemen’s evil veins!

Then in that great family,

A family new and free,

Do not forget. But with good intent

Speak quietly of me.

The mention of the steppes always makes me think of the film Taras BulbaYul Brynner gives an unforgettable performance as a Cossack of the steppes, and he struggles to raise his sons in a changing world. The line at the end is frozen in my memory: “I loved him, like I loved the steppes.” That value of identifying oneself so strongly with the land is throughout the film, and it resonates in the piece above. The author is given as Taras Schevchenko, which confirmed the connection I made with the film. I need to watch that film again.

Image result for taras bulba

There’s a whole lot to this book. I imagine I’m going to do several installments in this series. I haven’t done a series on here before, so we’ll see how it goes.

We Might Be in Trouble

So there I was, reading about the horrors faced by real people in Aleppo, and the life or death consequences being dealt by decisionmakers from various nations, when in the lower right corner of the screen, a headline about the Jags being called for a rare penalty tried to wrest my attention away. For a moment, it worked. I moused over to see what the rest of the headline said at least. A penalty that hadn’t been called in 18 years! Doesn’t that sound interesting?

Reading the Aleppo article, important as it is, took some willpower. When I finally really got some momentum going, it was quite interesting. I was nearing the end of the admittedly short article when the Jags clickbait link intervened. I am not a Jags fan, in fact I hardly care about the NFL at all. So why does that story draw my attention, threatening to tear me away from what I know is a much more important story?

I like to think of myself as bookish. Maybe I’m less of a deep reader than I think I am. Even so, I fancy myself above average for my age group when it comes to reading for, how shall I say, not exactly pleasure. Eat your vegetables type reading. Like a news story about Aleppo rather than an Onion News in Brief or a YouTube comments section.

So if I’m above average, even slightly above average for my demo, what does that say about all the other people out there who don’t even start reading the Aleppo story, who log on and go straight to /r/dankmemes? People my age vote. People at my age occupy offices at various levels of government, and make decisions that can affect people in big ways.

What if I’m Wrong? What Do You Mean “if”?

After I posted an article that stated the not-at-all-controversial fact that evolution was the best explanation for biodiversity and that creationism did not belong at all in the science classroom, a friend responded with comments to the effect of, “What are the consequences if we’re wrong?” There were other things he brought up, and we talked more about those things and not so much about this play on Pascal’s Wager. I honestly didn’t want to address that question because the question is flawed, and I don’t really want to (1) explain what a garbage philosophical argument Pascal’s Wager is, because that would mean I’d have to (2) admit that I’m conversing with people who think Pascal’s Wager is a good argument. I tried instead to present the case that there are many people of faith who have no problem with evolution, as it is the best explanation of the facts as we understand them. This worked to steer the conversation toward science and facts and away from making it a theist v. atheist thing, which may as well be insoluble as long as the two sides seem more often than not to talk past one another rather than really trying to reach an understanding.

Still, the question and its implied misconception stuck in my craw. I found the perfect rejoinder to it this morning in the form of a Phys.org article about how the Standard Model may need to be revised. That headline alone – “Hey we’re probably wrong about something!” – is enough to smash the premise of the question. That premise being that we don’t acknowledge the presence or the possibility of error in current scientific models. The whole point of capital S Science is that we know that we’re wrong somehow, and we want to find out how exactly we’re wrong. This idea of scientists declaring the answers to life, the universe, and everything from some ivory tower, never to be challenged is bullshit. What if we’re wrong? We gather more data, form another model, test it to see if it makes useful and reliable predictions, and eventually settle on a new understanding of the phenomena in question by consensus of experts in the field.

There’s this absolutist thing in the question, a black-or-white-ness that is not at all what real life is like. As if there were just those two choices, creation and evolution, that are either 100% right or 100% wrong. This characterization reveals how little the questioner knows about the topic. In every field that I’ve looked into, I’ve found that there are almost always shades on shades on shades of grey coloring every aspect of it. Things are seldom, if ever, just that simple. When we talk about things that way it is usually out of convenience – which makes me wonder, did my friend talk that way about “the two sides of the evolution debate” out of convenience? I think maybe yeah, there’s something to that. Of course he’d realize that the two positions have mini-camps within them that differ on some details, but that they agree on the fundamental things enough to count themselves as on the same side. However, the idea that there are two somewhat equal “sides” to this thing is an idea favored only by the uninformed or those who are under the sway of the charlatans on the side of creationism. For that reason, I can say that my friend is oversimplifying this topic much to my chagrin.

I am aware that even though the concepts and fundamental ideas of science, lofty though they may be, are not without flaw in practice. Malfeasance of all kinds is something that we should always be on the lookout for. It would be folly to say otherwise. If you want to bring up those kinds of problems in the scientific community, fine, but now you’ve started another discussion.

What about the other side of that question, what consequences await if it turns out that creationism was right all along? Aside from the obvious problem of which particular version of which creation story it is, we could defend ourselves by saying that the evidence we encountered led us to understand the world in the way that we did. And by every measurement we could make, it appeared that we had made a lot of correct predictions about how things worked. We were able to produce results with science. Far be it from me to know the mind of God, but it seems like maximizing life and minimizing misery – by and large the output of science in the last four hundred years – should be thought of as a good thing. So if we were able to do all this good stuff using science, how can it be bad if the employment of the same leads us to concluding that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor? What, if any, difference can be drawn between the two?

Whenever I have these kinds of discussions, I always end up asking about the epistemology of the other participants. What is it that led you to hold the position that you do? But epistemology is more than that. It’s the next question, or even the next next question or later. What do you consider to be knowledge? What attributes make a statement, or series of statements true?  

This is at the bottom of every discussion people have with one another, and they rarely realize it. We go back and forth with our talking points about this or that issue, and to the one making the statements, it seems like you must be crazy to think differently. We do this without realizing that the other person is thinking the same thing about their own view. Once we realize that people think differently than us, and that they think they have good reasons for doing so, and that we could benefit from finding out those reasons, can we hope to have productive discussions.

How I Became an Atheist

The following is my submission to Itsokaytogo.com. They are gathering stories from atheists, humanists and other secular people. On there, my story is called Critical Thinking: A Catholic Learns to Doubt. Enjoy.

 

My mom is Catholic, went to Catholic high school, and was determined to raise her sons in the Catholic church. Growing up, I went to Mass every Sunday followed by catechism. I learned pretty well and served as an alter boy. In high school I stopped going except when my mom forced me. My dad was raised Baptist and claimed, and still claims, to be Atheist. Faith wasn’t something that we discussed on a daily basis, or at all for that matter. When I had other Christian friends who would say something about faith and we would feel awkward. I think it’s a Catholic culture thing: we know we’re good Catholics (however we define good) and we don’t need to talk about it. At least that’s my impression of it.

I didn’t think much about God or religion until 2005, when I first tried to stop drinking. I had heard of AA growing up, and decided that my drinking had gotten to be seriously problematic for me and my family. In the program, they emphasize a Higher Power. The phrase “God as we understand Him” is a big part of the literature. If I recall correctly, fully seven of the Twelve Steps mention God or prayer as part of recovery. I figured I wanted to get sober, so I began really taking faith seriously. I decided that my God would be the Catholic God I grew up with. Going back to Mass was like coming home. I really started reading the Bible and getting into prayer and the AA program.

About a year later I started drinking again, but my son was getting older, like almost school age. I felt that the church was a place for him to develop morals. Yes, the old saw that the church is the only and best way to give a foundation in morality. So I started taking him to church and Sunday School. I noticed people chit-chatting during service while I was shushing my son and firmly telling him to participate in all the parts of the Catholic Mass. I often felt awkward during church, a voice in the back of my mind, “This is bullshit, this is bullshit”. No real direction or anything, just a general feeling that we were all just pretending but no one was willing to be honest about it.

Then, in 2012, I started a college program that met on weekends, intended to work around working people’s schedules. This meant missing Mass every other week. In one of the classes, the instructor took some time at the end of the course to talk about critical thinking. Like most people, I thought, “Yeah, other people should really do that. I definitely do that, and other people should too.” This was before I’d heard of Dunning/ Kruger, but man was I committing it. He recommended some books on the subject, one of which I found and began reading.

It introduced me to a systematic way of finding out why we believe what we believe. When I started applying this method to my opinions on things, I found that there was nothing supporting many of my cherished opinions.

At this time, I still had not completely gotten out of religion. I was feeling guilty for not taking my son to church every week, simply for the fact that he was missing out on what I considered necessary moral instruction. I was, however, applying the critical thinking approach to everything.

One night, I was thinking about the God concept. I decided to see if there was anything on YouTube that addressed the subject. I searched “does God exist” or something and watched a debate with Christopher Hitchens and Frank Turek I think. I heard things that were shocking at the time. The way Hitch heaved volley after volley of true statements that show church organizations doing harm in the world really blew me away. His arguments and the bold, shameless way he presented them showed me I could be without God. I can’t think of any specific thing that really convinced me, I think I was on the precipice of walking away from faith but just needed to know that it could be done. For that particular lesson, of being confident in one’s nonbelief, there has scarcely been a better example than Hitch. I really like his point about the Neanderthals. We know that these somewhat human relatives of ours had forms of ritual that suggested belief in an afterlife. If the same God that created us created them, where does that leave the Neanderthals? Did they not pray enough? Were they not quite in His image enough? Anyway, Hitch tells it way better than me, or nearly anyone else. From that point, I could say I was an atheist.

That was the beginning of my journey of discovery. I never want to stop finding things out, and examining why people think the way they do about things.