Friday, September 2, 2011

Space Aliens, Michele Bachmann, and Daft Assumptions

I discussed what The New York Times' executive editor said about religious beliefs and news coverage of political campaigns yesterday:
I ended my post with a list of some topics which Mr. Keller, the editor, had raised in his op-ed:

Sensible Idea; Daft Assumptions

I still think that Bill Keller means well. I also think that his basic idea is sensible, that:
  • religious beliefs matter
  • Political candidates should be asked questions about what they believe
    • And how it affects their perceptions and decisions
On the other hand, Mr. Keller seems to have drearily familiar assumptions about:
  • What "religious beliefs" are
  • How "reality-based" religious people are
  • The dangers of having public officials who take their religious beliefs seriously

Why Discuss What Some Editor Thinks?

Mr. Keller's assumptions are not held by folks at the fringes of society, with little or no practical influence on what the rest of us see, read, and hear.

They're what 'everybody knows' among America's self-described best and brightest. What the rest of us read and view is, to a great extent, determined by their perceptions and preferences.

That's partly because many folks see The New York Times as 'America's newspaper of record.' I think The N. Y. Times is one of New York City's major hometown papers, reflecting the interests and attitudes of the city's 'better' class: and I've discussed that before. Fairly often.1

An executive editor of 'America's newspaper of record' has quite a bit of influence. What he and his associates think is true affects what gets published in the Times: and repeated by less high-profile publications across the country.

People With Religious Beliefs are Crazy, Stupid, or Both: Right?

Sadly, Mr. Keller is ill-informed about "religious beliefs," and folks who take them seriously.

Bottom line? The folks in this Reuters photo aren't typical 'religious people.' They're not even typical of American Protestants:

I think it's time for Mr. Keller and others in America's upper crust to examine their assumptions. Basing beliefs on innuendo, rumors, and what your buddies think is easy. Believing that 'those religious people' are real-life analogs of Archie Bunker and Frank Burns may help someone gain acceptance from the local upper crust. But using biases as the foundation of a world view isn't, I think, a healthy way to live: and that's another topic.

Now, about Mr. Keller's assumptions about religious beliefs and the people who have them.

Space Aliens and the Coming Election

Mr. Keller's op-ed starts by equating belief "that space aliens dwell among us" with having religious beliefs:
"If a candidate for president said he believed that space aliens dwell among us, would that affect your willingness to vote for him? Personally, I might not disqualify him out of hand ... I would certainly want to ask a few questions. Like, where does he get his information? Does he talk to the aliens? Do they have an economic plan?

"Yet when it comes to the religious beliefs of our would-be presidents, we are a little squeamish about probing too aggressively. Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible...."(Bill Keller2)
I'll get back to Michele Bachmann in a bit.

Space Aliens, Other Worlds, and Proposition 27/219 (1277)

I was - impressed - by assuming that religious beliefs, and believing that space aliens live among us: but not because I believe that space aliens do not exist.

I don't believe "that space aliens dwell among us." Some entertaining stories have been written with that premise: but that's fiction.

I don't believe that space aliens can't exist, either. As a practicing Catholic, that'd be against the rules: and has been, since the 13th century. That's when "all who hold the Aristotelian position 'that the first cause cannot make more than one world' " were told they were wrong. (The bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier, Proposition 27/219 (1277))3 To the best of my knowledge, Proposition 27 hasn't been rescinded.a

Is saying we mustn't claim that God can't create what He wants being narrow-minded? I don't think so: more like acknowledging the power of God.

Michele Bachmann, Ephesians, and Getting a Grip

Getting back to Mr. Keller's op-ed:
"...Michele Bachmann was asked during the Iowa G.O.P. debate what she meant when she said the Bible obliged her to 'be submissive' to her husband, and there was an audible wave of boos - for the question, not the answer...."2
Oh, dear. I'd like to know the answer to that myself. Ephesians 5:21-30 is another of those parts of the Bible where folks don't read the whole thing. I know there are groups who say otherwise, but 'shut up and fetch the beer' isn't the message to women. Again, I've posted about that sort of thing.4

As for booing the question? I don't know enough about the context of that meeting to have an opinion.

Educating a Conscience, Assumptions, and the GIGO Rule

A thousand years ago, some of my ancestors were conducting human sacrifices. I don't think that was right: at least partly because I've got information they didn't.

We call the ability to tell the difference between good and bad, and decide to do good, the conscience. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1777) The Church says that listening to our conscience is important. (Catechism, 1779)

So is training our conscience:
"Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened. A well-formed conscience is upright and truthful. It formulates its judgments according to reason, in conformity with the true good willed by the wisdom of the Creator. The education of conscience is indispensable for human beings who are subjected to negative influences and tempted by sin to prefer their own judgment and to reject authoritative teachings.

"The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart."
(Catechism, 1783-1784)
Anyone who's programmed, and many who work with computers, know about GIGO: "a rule stating that the quality of the output is a function of the quality of the input; put garbage in and you get garbage out." (Princeton's WordNet)

I think the same rule applies to people. A person who mistakes assumptions for facts could use the finest logic: and come to a wrong conclusion. It's a 'been there, done that' situation for me. I've had to give up some cherished beliefs, like the clockwork universe notion; and using contraceptives. And I'm still working at educating my conscience. Like the Catechism says, it's a life-long job.

And distinguishing between assumptions and facts is vital.

Fact, Fiction, and Bias

I've got more to say about Mr. Keller's assumptions about religious belief, and living in the real world. But that will wait.

Related posts:

1 I think hometown papers serve a useful function, and are important to the communities they serve. By reflecting assumptions and preferences of their readers, they arguably contribute to their community's sense of identity.

In the case of The New York Times, a newspaper which caters to the preferences and assumptions of the local elite has national influence. I don't mind New York City's upper crust having their very own paper. I do think the rest of us should remember what 'America's newspaper of record' is really like:
2 Quotes are from:
3 Toward the end of Europe's Middle Ages, European scholars had studied the works of Aristotle, and took what the ancient Greek said very seriously. So far, so good: Aristotle was a very smart man, and made huge contributions to Western Civilization.

Aristotle doesn't seem to have liked the idea that there could be worlds other than the one we live on. At any rate, he said that we're on the only habitable place.

That's just one man's opinion. But when that man is Aristotle, it makes a difference:
"...Beginning about 1100 a.d., text after text of the great Greek philosopher Aristotle reached the West, and Christians were suddenly confronted with a unified, well- constructed account of the universe, an account written by a pagan. Aristotle denied that there could be a plurality of worlds. Of course, if there could not be a plurality of worlds, then the question of extraterrestrials was moot.

"There were three reactions to Aristotle's purely natural, non-Christian philosophical account: vehement rejection (the radical Augustinians), careful embrace (St. Thomas), and passionate embrace (the radical Aristotelians).

"Around 1265 a conflict between the two radical wings began to heat up, resulting in the famous (or, for Thomists, infamous) 219 Propositions in 1277, issued by the bishop of Paris, Etienne Tempier. Proposition 27 condemns all who hold the Aristotelian position 'that the first cause cannot make more than one world.'

"It should be stressed that the aim of this condemnation was not to affirm a plurality of worlds but to affirm God's omnipotence against any account of nature that seemed to restrict God's powers. Aristotle's insistence that there could only be one world accorded nicely with the Genesis account of creation, but it appeared to the radical Augustinians to make God the servant of natural necessity rather than its master...."
("Alien Ideas Christianity and the Search for Extraterrestrial Life," Benjamin D. Wiker, Crisis 20, no. 10 (November 2002))
A little over seven centuries later, we still don't know for sure whether there's life anywhere except on Earth.

But, as a practicing Catholic, I'm not going to say that God couldn't have created a space-time continuum with life on more than one ball of rock. I've discussed this before:
4 I'm slightly sympathetic with the folks who booed that question about Bachmann's take on 'submitting' to her husband. I've gotten a trifle fed up with how folks don't get Ephesians 5:21-30 myself. Despite what some folks assume, it doesn't say that wives should be doormats. Ephesians 5:15 tells me to love my wife "even as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her."

Posts about Ephesians and assumptions:
a Update (February 22, 2014)

I've since learned that the Propositions of 1277 were later annulled: but not, I think, because the Church decided that Aristotle had more klout than God. ☺

1 comment:

Brigid said...

Missing a silent vowel: "more than on ball of rock"

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

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What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.