A lesson about dithering squirrels

squirrel-deadOn the way home from the art studio this Sunday morning, I slowed the car to allow a squirrel in the street to make a decision about which way to go. You know the story. The squirrel turned one way, then the other. Suddenly it scampered to the curve.

But you can’t always see the results of those frantic decisions until you’re another forty feet down the street. We all tend to glance back hoping the squirrel did not get crushed under a car tire. That’s when guilt grips us if we have a conscience. A life wasted, it seems, by random activities in the universe.

Except random activities are the rule of the day. They happen every second for all of eternity. As far as your mind can travel, there are squirrels of one kind or another making choices all the way from the subatomic level up the expanding travels of a galaxy through time itself.

That is evolution in progress. Squirrels are either getting run over or living to face yet another day. The squirrels left dead on the street often get run over again and again. Their bodies are either eaten by scavengers, consumed by worms and bacteria or simply crushed into the asphalt as a grease spot that no one notices.

Predestination

Now there used to be a theory or two in theology that said God controlled every one of these activities. Everything in the universe was made to order. God worked like a fast order chef or a control freak head waiter at a busy restaurant. That was predestination.

squirrel-on-the-roadBut that makes God out to be a pretty bad character, the dispenser of evil as well as goodness. Which makes for thorny questions when it comes to the personal fate of members of the human race, who are so preoccupied with their own destinies they can hardly comprehend their real place in the universe.

That’s also what makes it so difficult for some people to imagine that the human race emerged from the same soup as the rest of life on earth. Never mind that the soup runs through our veins is blood that mimics ocean water in its salinity, or that we share 3/4 of our genetic makeup with just about every other living thing on earth.

Never mind. That’s too much alignment for squirrels that prefer to dither over less relevant facts. Like whether Mary was a Virgin, or that John the Baptist was lefthanded. And so on.

Dither yonder

When it comes to certain types of decision-making, human beings are as dumb as squirrels and make just as many bad choices. Hundreds of thousands of people die each day due to the simple arithmetic involved in bad decisions at the wrong time. Add in the selective pressures of war and famine and natural disasters, all of which are largely avoidable with a little cooperation, and human beings don’t look so smart even in the context of predestination.

But when you look through all this dithering through the cool eye of evolution, it’s all entirely predictable. 99% of all living things that have ever existed in the earth’s history are now extinct. The age of dinosaurs lasted millions of years but ultimately most of them died off through unforgiving circumstances. God didn’t stop that from happening. Not at all. The birds that evolved from dinosaurs or actually are dinosaurs made out okay. But many of them are at risk these days as well, sucked into the Black Hole of the Anthropogenic Age where the gravity of human activity sucks things into non-existence never to be seen or heard again.

Endangered species 

These days, hundreds of species of animals, plants, insects and other life forms are threatened by a new wave of extinctions. This is indeed the Anthropogenic age, when extinctions and climate change and other earthly devastations once-credited to God are now exacted with the same casual precision as a squirrel burying a nut in the wasted Garden of Eden.

Just in the last 100 years, species of birds such as the Passenger Pigeon that once numbered in the billions have been erased from history. Extinct. No more exist. All dead. Nuts buried by squirrels too busy market hunting to care about the eventual outcome. No one stopped to tell them they were nut for shooting so many birds.

The same thing almost happened to the American bison, which now exists mostly in carefully tended herds that number a fraction of populations that once roamed the Great Plains. Just as painful are the losses of flora and fauna we can’t see.

The once great tallgrass prairie is reduced to 1/10th of one percent of its former range.

These were all actions caused by human beings. Thus they represent an engagement in the process of evolution. People who deny this fact typically rely on their own Origin of Species based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. The only explanation they can offer about the extinction of species is a reputed Great Flood that covered the entire earth. Ostensibly the fellow named Noah gathered enough living and breeding sets of life forms on the Ark to repopulation the entire world.

tx-blind-salamander-picture-1To accomplish this feat would have required, of course, a blind salamander from the caves of Texas to crawl across the entire western European continent, swim thousands of miles across a saltwater ocean, climb onto the dry land of the Eastern Seaboard and swim all the way to what is now the State of Texas, crawl across hundreds of miles of parched landscape to where a small population of said blind salamanders still lives and breeds to this day.

The absurdity is not assuaged by the claim that “all things are possible with God.” The examples of impossible migrations are so vast and so daunting that the tale of Noah’s Ark quickly falls into the category of metaphor.

The part of the story that does apply is that human beings do apparently bear some responsibility for the welfare and stewardship of animals, plants and other species on this earth. The entire earth is an ark, if you will. And human beings are doing a really crappy job of playing Noah, wiping out hundreds of species of life forms every year.

The Flood story strongly suggests that God is not afraid of extinction. That fact is borne out by what we know about patterns of extinction through the sciences of paleontology, biology and the theory of evolution.

To explain God’s relationship to these harsh events, one merely has to acknowledge the presence of free will in the universe. The squirrel on the road makes a choice when a car approaches. It runs back and forth and either gets nailed by a tire or escapes. There is nothing sentimental about this process. It is free will at work.

IMG_0492Human beings thus are subject to choices made by free will as well. These choices fuel or place in the process of evolution. We make good choices, we live. When we make bad choices, sometimes we die. This is true on both an individual and collective basis. Evolution takes place largely in incremental fashion, but it can also roll out in wholesale destruction if human beings fearfully agree to respond to life’s circumstances like a herd of squirrels.

We don’t see squirrel migrations every day, but it happens now and then when population or environmental pressures drive squirrels to migratory madness. Let us consider a documented tale from the early 19th century: “Here is how, In 1811, Charles Joseph Labrobe wrote in The Rambler in North America of a vast squirrel migration that autumn in Ohio: “A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being, left their reckless and gambolling life, and their ancient places of retreat in the north, and were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South …”

At times human beings are subject to the same sort of social madness. Then the human race behaves like a huge pack of squirrels or lemmings rushing off a cliff. Normally, squirrels in their home environment are typically cautious and predictable. They use the same paths to get from tree to tree.

But when forced out in the open, or faced with confusing situations such as an oncoming car, squirrels equivocate, turning back and forth in desperate reaction to a world outside their evolutionary understanding.

When faced with the unknown, human beings act no differently than squirrels on a high way. This is true among individuals and group populations. Human culture is squirrelly, and fear can turn otherwise rational people into fearful sheep.

And while squirrels are supposedly a much lower species than apes, there are people who consider the idea that human beings descended from earlier forms of primates a real insult. But when it comes to the sometimes squirrelly thinking and behavior of entire nations, to be considered on par with an ape would be a good thing.

squirrel-on-road.jpgThe human race is experiencing a “squirrel on the highway” moment when it comes to dealing with climate change. The back and forth between those who accept the evidence and those who deny its verity is causing the human race to dither and change direction on the subject. Meanwhile, the Big Wheels are Turning and heading our way. If the human race does not figure out how to slow down the rate of climate change, we really will get run over. Coastlines will flood. Hurricanes will increase their destruction. The human race will be forced to evolve in a hurry to deal with climactic extremes that will produce highly unpredictable weather.

Some people consider that bunk. They cover their heads with their squirrel tales or insist that the Great Squirrel in the Sky is the only Keeper of Climate Change. But that only amounts to ignoring the roar of the engine around the curve and the threat of the fat tires about to crush the collectives spines of a million squirrels dithering back and forth on the highway.

And some squirrels don’t even care. Safely ensconced in their Wealthy Squirrel Hideaways with plenty of nuts to gnaw, they could not give a rat’s ass if a few millions other squirrels get turned into Global Road Kill. It’s none of their concern. There are the I’ve Got Mine Squirrels that actually take pride in the act of driving the trucks that run over other squirrels. And for some, that is considered a great sport.

But it’s true. When global warming kicks in an temperatures rise across great expanses of continents such as Africa and South America and North America, mass migrations of people will take place in regions where intense heat and desertification takes over.

And still there will be dithering by the rich and powerful, and fearful meandering by those trapped in the horrific cycle of heat and drought and flooding. The Bible fails

Even The Holy Bible fails misterably in providing hope or solutions to this apparent dilemma of a worldwide threat to human existence. After all, God ostensibly enabled the Great Flood that called Noah into action. If we can believe the text, then it was true that all the people of the earth, other than a select few, were wiped out.

God also brought Hail and Brimstone down on Sodom and Gomorrah in rash treatment for the excesses of those cities and their inhospitality to strangers, especially angels.

angelsAnd let us not forget that God even allowed the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. That scattered his ostensibly Chosen People like a band of squirrels, out into an inhospitable world where they got run over and enslaved in many cases. But a few eventually banded together and returned to their home turf, where they reside to this day in a form a bit evolved from the original. Because that’s how evolution works, you see.

The entire process of survival is always a bit squirrelly for all involved. Squirrels able to anticipate and adjust their behavior while crossing the Road of Existence most often survive. But among human beings, there is also a moral responsibility to share those instincts for survival, and even hold paws with those more likely to dither or get crushed. That’s the role of government and of scripture, to enact the decisive course of humanity.

Because whether you view it through the eyes of scripture or the cold lens of an evolutionary viewpoint, it never pays to be a dithering squirrel.

 

 

Are abortion opponents blaming government for their own failures?

A Word Cloud formed from a National Review email on abortion legislation. Click to view large.

For 25 years our family held membership in a conservative branch of the Lutheran Church. My wife was raised in a family that had been longtime members of that denomination, so we continued our membership in a church of that background near our hometown.

We got married and the baptized our children at that church. The pastor was a wise, theologically astute man who once delivered a sermon titled “Jesus: The ultimate liberal, do-gooder and bleeding heart.” We loved that man for his spirited advocacy for the true heart of scripture. The congregation built around his ministry was full of compassionate people with concern for others and a truly generous worldview. We are still friends and socialize with many of those families, but we left the church more than a year ago to attend a church that better fits our mainstream evangelical Lutheran theology.

Back when the beloved pastor who married us retired to become pastor emeritus, the church went through a series of fitful adjustments to the interim leadership brought in by the synod. The result was that the ideology and theology delivered from the pulpit became increasingly conservative and rigid. Through it all my wife and I kept asking ourselves, and others, does it have to be like this? But we hung in there. For years. And years. Because we loved the people who attended the church. Served on the Board. Sang in the choir. Confirmed our two bright kids and set them off in life.

We had 6 different pastors during that period. The one who finally settled in for a series of years is a good man who ministers to everyone in the best way he can. But he is most definitely a died-in-the-wool product of the very conservative synod where he attended seminary.

For example:

  • This synod does not accrue leadership rights to women in the church. Women cannot serve communion or be elders.
  • The synod passes down opinions on social subjects such as evolution (they believe it’s false) homosexuality (a sin, no questions asked) and abortion.

Recently I was asked to return to our former church to help lead the Praise Service as two of the lay-leaders were out of town. I gladly accepted and rehearsed with the singers and band, and everything came off well. Someone even complimented my singing, which really surprised me. I know my limitations.

It was also Sanctity of Life Sunday, and I knew what that meant: A predictably intense lecture on the immoral consequences of abortion.

The service began with a video provided by Tony Perkins, here shown in a linked video challenging President Barack Obama on conception issues. Perkins is the same fellow who says that environmentalism can be directly linked to abortion as a conspiratorial attempt to control human population He views all these activities as signs that the Second Coming is imminent, and that worrying about the earth is frivolous compared to worrying about your soul. Perkins is a modern day zealot with a lot of axes to grind. His pre-service video was a testament to modern production values and a black-and-white position on abortion that Pro-Lifers love to embrace.

Following the video, the sermon called for church members to vote for politicians who support so-called “Pro-Life” issues and candidates. The service clearly skirted laws governing churches and politics. Basically the entire service from end to end was one long political ad.

The pastor concluded his sermon saying that he recognizes there are other issues of importance challenging America, including a $16 Trillion debt, a struggling economy and other issues. But he stood firm with his statement that abortion remains the most important of all political issues because it is a “matter of life and death.” And that, in a nutshell, is how so many conservatives become one-issue voters.

Pushing women aside to get to their wombs

The so-called Pro-Life argument seems to see no problem shoving women aside to accomplish one goal, and that is to ban abortions of all types.

The official Republican Platform is essentially unforgiving toward any form of abortion, even in pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Pro-Life advocates like Todd Akin have gone on record making absurd defenses of conceptions caused by rape and other unwanted pregnancies, insisting that women have natural defenses against pregnancies resulting from rape. No medical science has ever determined such capabilities. Yet the determined zealots of the anti-abortion lobby seem to feel no compunction in making up such miraculous tales to justify their ideology.

And as a result, the entire manner in which conservatives continue to pursue banning abortion turns out to be a miscarriage of faith, politics and common sense. Here’s why.

The reason why abortions must be and are now legal

The reason why abortions are legal is to provide safe access to medically-performed abortions to all women who may need that service. The right to determine the need for an abortion remains the province of a woman and her doctor. Anyone who believes in the limits of the power of government should agree that personal medical decisions of all kinds should be made by the individual, and the individual alone. Injecting various forms of moral codes, especially from the various religions in America, does not promise any sort of clear resolution. To choose one religion’s moral code over another is a clear case of establishment of state religion, which is clearly banned by the United States Constitution. It is remarkable therefore that the Republican party that claims to represent the rights of liberty for individual decision-making should choose to swing so far to the left on the abortion issue.

Relative to the law, however, the Pro-Life movement claims that millions of women are getting “abortions of convenience,” thereby flaunting the purpose a law designed to protect women from unsafe and medically unsupervised abortions, a practice that prior to the Roe vs. Wade case put many a woman’s health at risk.

But we certainly cannot count on the fact that banning abortion will prevent women from seeking them. That’s why the government acted to legalize abortions, to prevent harm to women.

Pro-Life proponents make the specious and notably non-conservative claim that government is actually responsible for the number of abortions now taking place in America. Conservatives love to claim on one hand that government is an ineffective method of managing culture and society, yet at the same time they blame government for its effectiveness in encouraging women to have abortions of choice.

Which is it? Is our government really responsible for the number of abortions in America, or has someone else abdicated their moral duties and turned around to blame government for their own failures? 

Let us consider an idea. How are Pro-Life conservatives doing at the job of convincing women not to get abortions? Pretty miserable, it seems. An estimated 22 million women now choose to get abortions each year. If the Pro-Life message is truly compelling and favored by God, it is evident that those who claim to represent the urgency of that message have to do a better job of reaching women.

Is Planned Parenthood more Pro-Life than the Catholic Church? 

As it turns out, the people who are helping women avoid unwanted pregnancies include organizations such as Planned Parenthood, who work closely with women across America to protect and manage their reproductive health. Planned Parenthood provides important services like birth control so that women are not put in a position of conceiving children they are not ready to have. That is a common sense approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies.

Yet this practical solution to cut down the number of abortions in America is notably resisted by conservative politicians and organizations such as the Catholic Church, who claim that birth control itself is immoral and against the teachings of the Bible.

It is telling that a reported 97% of Catholic women ignore the directives of their own church. So it appears the so-called moral authority of the Catholic church is a patristic anachronism to which women members really don’t pay attention.

And they shouldn’t. With the ready availability of functional, effective birth control that can easily prevent unwanted pregnancies, there is absolutely no moral justification for telling men and women they can’t use it. The even more disgusting alliance with conservative Republicans who have demonized women for wanting access to birth control is evidence of mysogyny, a literal hatred and fear of women and their bodies that is being legislated into the laws of America by people who ostensibly should know better.

What Would Jesus Do tell us to do about abortion?

The Christ of the Bible never relied on governmental authorities to do the work of his ministry and of God. He would find the prospect of blaming the government for the number of abortions in America an absurd idea.

Jesus called on his followers to use love and their own keen energies and talents to reach people in need of help and salvation. If today’s so-called conservatives came to Jesus with their complaints about law and the actions of government with relation to abortion, he would chastise them for failing to see the real source of the problem.

One can almost hear Jesus asking these modern-day Pharisees: “Is the government your God?”

“No!” the conservative politicians and religious believers would cry. “We answer only to God above!”

“Then serve your God, and go to the people in need. Reach the women of the world before they face the hard choices they are making. That is what God wants you to do.”

“But what of the law?” conservatives might answer. “If we have the law on our side, our job will be much easier!”

“What of the law, indeed?” Jesus would ask. “Are you not trying to use the law to make up for your own failures? Is that what God would have you do? Blaming government for your own failures is no path to heaven. Changing hearts rather than changing laws is your true calling.”

How the state of Tennessee, creationism and denial of global warming add up

In 2009, well before the state of Tennessee took the socially regressive step of formalizing its support for teaching the “controversy” over the relative merits of science versus creationism and intelligent design, I wrote an essay online at Associatedcontent.com (now Yahoo! voices) tracing the connection between people who don’t believe in evolution and those who refuse to accept the idea that manmade global warming is a reality. The principal point was that basic disbelief in science resulting from anachronistic religious beliefs made it impossible for people to grasp the dynamics contributing to manmade global warming.

There is a definable overlap between people who do not believe in global warming and those who do not accept the theory of evolution. A 2005 CBS poll on belief in evolution showed that 51% of Americans do not accept the scientific theory of evolution. Furthermore, 55% said they believe God created humans in their present form.

Based on these statistics, it is no wonder that a large faction of people do not accept global warming when they do not (or cannot, or will not…) accept basic science and its predictive abilities contributing to theories of gravity, physics, chemistry, germ theory, genetics or any of the other key sciences now deemed critical to understanding how the physical world operates.

A 2009 Gallup poll found similar results about American beliefs about evolution: “On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they “believe in the theory of evolution,” while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don’t have an opinion either way. These attitudes are strongly related to education and, to an even greater degree, religiosity.”

Perhaps you saw the chart recently making the rounds online showing that America ranks far below other developing countries in how it embraces science, especially evolution. The brand of anachronistic religion known as fundamentalism founded on biblical literalism is clearly to blame for this regressive trend in America’s understanding of science. But the more scholars challenge the retrograde contentions of religion, the deeper those factions dig in. By any rational measure or definition of science, America is winning the race to become more stupid. And perhaps it is beginning to show in the nation’s progressive decline as a superpower. And this trend of Americans against science is beginning to having profound political repercussions on the international stage, making America look like some sort of backwoods hick rather than the nation that proudly led scientific and technological advances such as invention of the fuel combustion engine, launching of rockets to the moon and development of medical discoveries to cure disease and prolong life.

By losing its respect for basic science, America is basically losing respect for itself while allowing a brand of dogmatic religion to ascend to the point where it threatens to upend even our political system by throwing millions of votes toward candidates all too willing to borrow the authority of religion for the attainment of absolute political power.

It is no coincidence, for example, that former President George W. Bush resisted action on global warming. Bush and the conservative think tanks that informed his Presidency, along with evangelical leaders eager to share power, helped promulgate the notion that manmade global warming is based on “junk science.” The Bush administration even altered reports by climate scientists to better reflect the administration’s philosophy on global warming, redacting key findings and simply re-writing parts they did not like.

This blatant resistance to credible scientific opinion is a hallmark of a stubborn ideology. For George W. Bush also expressed disbelief in evolution and publicly supported teaching of creationism and intelligent design in public schools under the guise of “tolerance.”

Melting glaciers, shrinking polar ice caps, rising seas and profound weather events brought on by global warming may ultimately convince even the greatest skeptics that manmade climate change is real. But when that happens, it will undoubtedly send conservatives running to find ways to place blame on scientists and the so-called “liberals” who support them for letting it all happen. The argument will be that scientists just weren’t convincing enough.

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Thursday, January 22, 2009.

http://slatest.slate.com/posts/2012/04/11/tennessee_evolution_law_allows_creationism_intelligent_design_in_the_classroom.html

Drought, God and Human Enterprise

Emerald beetle on dry ground

Drought over much of America has parched the soil

The problem Christians face in consideration of natural disasters such as drought, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes and fires is that Christianity itself seems conflicted about so-called “acts of God.”

Even insurance companies bent on actuarial accuracy have been known to use the phrase “act of God” to describe weather and other natural phenomena gone out of control.

The current challenge over much of North America is drought. It appears that among all dangerous results of climactic conditions, drought may be the most pernicious of all when it comes to the ability of the human race to address its impact on agriculture and other enterprise.

We take for granted that it will rain sooner or later. But in an economy teetering from the effects of human foul play and political stupidity, a natural disaster such as drought can prove to be a tipping point. The Depression of the 1930s and the Dust Bowl proved that point. We apparently have not learned much from the experience. Industrialized farming, while something of a miraculous invention, still cannot make up for the fact of no rain. Crops still need water, and irrigation cannot currently compensate for millions of acres of parched corn and beans.

So where is God in all this? Surely there are plenty of farmers and perhaps a few corn and bean speculators praying for rain so that some sort of crop emerges from the summer of 2012. Yet there may be just as many commodity speculators praying against rain so that their margins or profits or product estimates will prove true so that they can somehow corner the market and get rich as royal thieves.

Does God listen to their prayers as well? Does God answer prayers for wealth, especially ill-begotten wealth that would be the result of human suffering?

If we take the world at face value we might surmise that God does answer the prayers of the evil as well as the good. With wealth rising to the top of American society at previously unseen rates, one thinks of Bible passages such as these: “Will not all of them taunt him with ridicule and scorn, saying, “‘Woe to him who piles up stolen goods and makes himself wealthy by extortion! How long must this go on?” Habakkuk 2:5-7.

Well, woe is relative, and the rich sometimes don’t seem to feel it, or much of anything with regards to other human beings. They even suppose to feel favored by God.

While much of middle-class America has been struggling along since the economy ratcheted up to a crash under the watch of George W. Bush, the wealthy largely rebounded from stock market losses and are doing just fine, thank you. So where is God’s justice in these circumstances?

It has always been that way. And it will always be that way. Achieving justice in this world often requires much effort and human enterprise, for evil in this world is industrious, greedy and pathologically uncaring. That certainly does not mean that all wealthy people are evil. But it does mean that those who are can do great harm.

But nature can be just as capricious. The world is designed, if you want to call it that, to operate on random forces that include natural disasters and even evolutionary twists of fate. So the drought of 2012 is neither unimaginable to God, or unexpected. Some people automatically throw stones at the nation for its supposed sins, accusing America of “tolerating” a list of ostensibly evil activities ranging from abortion to homosexuality, promiscuity to lack of church attendance. Yet it’s funny how seldom those same prophets seem to admonish America for its inequality in wealth, its obsession with violence and its disenfranchisement of the needy and poor. Those themes are much more prevalent in the Bible, yet the crowd that likes to say that God is punishing America for its sins almost always ignores the sins of power. The reason? Too often the supposed prophets are in political alliance with the rich and powerful, thus compromising their ability to speak for God.

It seems that same bible-thumping crowd likes to deny the random fact of evolution, preferring to insist that God is in control of every moment and event in time, like some OCD control freak of a deity. But that worldview does not square with the reality of free will in the world, or the fact that human beings are free to choose in belief in God and Christ. God may indeed be “in control,” but we make our own choices about what elements of God’s universe we seek to embrace, evil or good.

So we persist in a dysfunctional relationship with the influence of God in the world, throwing faith at the idea that it will someday rain while denying that it might be our own, human activities that could be contributing to the current drought.

Indeed, global climate change is the product of human beings burning fossil fuels at alarming rates. Yet the people who favor a nation bowing down to the interests of the very wealthy, and industrialists to boot, insist that holding polluters accountable will harm our economy. How ironic. It’s almost like they can’t see the forest for the trees. Hence the organic symbolism is doubly lost.

That is so narrow-minded as to deny the very existence of God, who the Bible says favors the actions of the just and prudent among us.

So these are the lessons of Drought, God and Human Enterprise. Without recognizing the consequences of our own behavior, God cannot (and will not) help us solve any of the problems we face, be they natural or manmade disasters. Our preparedness and humility in the face of such circumstances may help us attain the collaboration and response necessary to prevent the inevitable natural disaster from becoming fatal to ourselves. If you read the Bible carefully, that is most of what God has done for the human race through great leaders.

God despises however, those who act in His name for gain in personal wealth and power, especially through extortion, calculated speculation and manipulation of people through deceptive words. One cannot help but realize that an evil game is being played by people who deny the massive evidence from science that global warming is real, and that natural disasters, including drought, may be worsened by our own aggressive folly. That is true also of pollution by pesticides, heavy metals, atmospheric degradation and even genetically modified crops and animals. Simply put: We’re messing around for profit and in the process may be losing our grip, and our souls.