Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Wager

MissionTerritory as an interesting post on embryonic stem cell research. Unlike most people talking about the subject, he is a biochemist who actually understands many of the details from a technical point of view. Honestly, the most interesting part of his post to me was the reference to the violinist argument and the contrast of certain differences between abortion and stem cell research.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Cosmological Why

A few months ago I wrote a post on The Limits of Science which spawned a lively and vibrant discussion. One of the main points I raised in that post was the "fine-tuning" observation about our universe... the fact that our universe (as we currently understand it) is governed by a number of apparently-arbitrary constants, and if any of them were significantly different than they are, life would not be able to exist. I argued, in my post, that Intelligent Design was at least as good an explanation for that observation as any naturalistic explanation that had been proposed.

Today, I came across an article which tackles this very question, written by Robert Kuhn in the Skeptic magazine (a publication of the Skeptics Society), titled Why This Universe? It lays out the scientific dilemma in more detail than I had previously encountered it, then presents a wide variety of possible explanations. Kuhn groups the explanations into four broad categories:

* One Universe Models
Basically, these fall into "it just is the way it is" or "we'll understand it later" groups.

* Multiple Universe Models
We observe a universe compatible with life, of course, because a universe compatible with life is the only one we could exist in! All the other universes have existed or will exist, but we'll never know about them, because they won't be conducive to our existence.

* Nonphysical Causes
Religious explanations, for the most part.

* Illusions
Maybe The Matrix was more right than we thought!

Kuhn doesn't pick any favorites in this contest for explanation. He seems to suggest that these categories are in pretty much a dead heat given our current understanding of the universe. But, he is optimistic that clarification may yet come in the future as we learn more.

It's a very thought-provoking article, and a short, easy read. I recommend it.


Saturday, June 23, 2007

Utilitarian vs. Principled Ethical Thinking

The RedBlueChristian blog recently had an interesting post about different ways of approaching ethical questions (specifically related to the upcoming Presidential election). The discussion centers around James Dobson, who has said that he could not in good conscience vote for a pro-abortion candidate such as Rudy Giuliani, but would simply choose not to vote if he had no other choice.

The blog (following the candidacies of those running for President in 2008) faced a similar issue when reporting that Sam Brownback, though adamantly opposed to abortion, said he would support Rudy Giuliani if he was the Republican candidate. The author of the blog criticized Brownback for his stance, but I commented that Brownback seemed correct (and at least morally consistent) to me.

Who do you think is right? The utilitarian ethicist, picking the best candidate under the circumstances, even if you strongly disagree with them? Or the principled ethicist, choosing to make a statement or to protect your conscience through withholding your vote? Is there any issue that would push you to be a principled voter (or non-voter) rather than a utilitarian, even if it's not an ethical issue per se?


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Protestantism and Contraception

Not too long ago Touchstone ran an interesting article on the history of Protestantism and contraception, tracing historical positions on contraception and relating them to the life of the Protestant pastor. It is an interesting article to me, not leastwise because growing up I had no idea that there had ever been Protestant opposition to contraception. It seemed that nearly everybody I knew did it, and even the "full quiver" types I knew who didn't appear to practice contraception didn't say contraception was itself immoral. It wasn't uncommon for folks I knew getting married to find condoms on the seat of their "getaway" vehicle. Since the vast majority of my family and friends were Protestant, it took the intervention of a friend who understood a wee bit about Catholicism for me to avoid finding rubbers in my own getaway car. Apparently, many Protestants don't even know that faithful Catholics oppose contraception.

Also of interest was information on Southern Baptists (including a convention statement) embracing abortion in certain circumstances back in the 1970's. Until recently, I didn't know that many Protestants (even of the evangelical stripe) had embraced Roe vs. Wade early on.


Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Muslim/Christian Priest?

I came across an interesting story today in the Seattle Times. Apparently, a local Episcopal priest named Ann Holmes Redding has recently become a Muslim. However, she did not convert to Islam... she just added it to what I guess could only be called her repertoire of religious affiliations. I don't know how else to put it. The article is fascinating.

Redding does not have a problem being both Christian and Muslim. She worships and serves in her Episcopal church, and she prays five times a day to Allah, attending a local mosque on Fridays.

However, this does not come without difficulties for her (and I'm not speaking about interpersonal difficulties). Her appropriation was made easier by the fact that she has long rejected the deity of Jesus, the doctrine of original sin, and the redemptive nature of Jesus' death and resurrection... all central to any concept of historical Christianity. A conflict remains in that she does believe that Jesus died and was raised again, a fact that the Qur'an specifically denies... and according to Islam, one can't simply pick and choose what parts of the Qur'an to believe. As Redding says, "That's something I'll find a challenge the rest of my life."

No Muslim leader was quoted in the article saying that Redding's beliefs were acceptable. However, she is welcomed at the local mosque. Various Christian leaders were quoted in the article giving various perspectives, but the most interesting is the fact that her Episcopal bishop supports her multi-religiosity and considers her a "bridge" person, whatever that means.

I once knew some Christian missionaries living in a fiercely Muslim Middle Eastern country. Any activity designed to make Muslims leave Islam is strictly forbidden in those countries, so enterprising missionaries tend to get creative with their methods. These individuals decided that the word "Islam" literally means simply "Submitted to God", so they would call themselves Muslims. They prayed five times a day (nobody's against praying, right?); they gave the required tithes (giving money is a certainly a Christian thing to do); they wore the required garments (Christianity doesn't say what we should or shouldn't wear). And, as they mingled with their Muslim friends who considered them Muslim converts, they tried to convince them to become Jesus-following Muslims... of course, in the process, those true Muslims would have to turn against fundamental tenets of Islam. In the end, it seemed more than a little deceptive to me.

This all connects back to a point we discussed in our recent What Do You Believe? thread. How flexible can a word like "Christian" or "Muslim" be? "Christian" can be literally read as "Christ-follower", and can therefore be appropriated by anyone who follows a Christ. "Muslim" literally means "submitted to God", and can therefore be appropriated by anyone who submits to a God. But, if we interpret the words that broadly, they lose all meaning. To then begin to differentiate between various groups (which is, after all, the point of giving them labels in the first place), we need to come up with different words.

In Redding's case, she seems to interpret the words "Christian" and "Muslim" as words of affiliation and practice, not of belief. She is a Christian because she performs Christian practices and is affiliated with Christianity and feels like a Christian... not because of any particular beliefs that she holds. The same with Islam... she did not become a Muslim, nor does she consider herself now to be a Muslim, because of anything about Islam that she believes. No, she is a Muslim because she feels called to Islam, because she affiliates herself with Islam, and because she performs Muslim devotional practices.

So, is it possible to be a Christian and a Muslim at the same time? Nowadays, it seems that you need to define your terms more carefully before you can answer the question.

Is it possible to be a practicing Christian and a practicing Muslim at the same time? Is it possible to feel kinship with Christianity and Islam at the same time? Is it possible to be affiliated with Christianity and with Islam at the same time? Yes, Yes, and Yes.

Is it possible to believe core historical Christian doctrines and historically-defined Muslim doctrines at the same time? Emphatically, no.

There is a counter-argument that can be presented here. There are groups, both Christian groups and Muslim groups, that are generally allowed to use the term "Christian" and "Muslim" even though they hold certain doctrines that are historically at odds with the respective belief systems. Sufi Muslims, for instance, are considered heretics by more traditional Muslims... yet they still are able to call themselves Muslims. Lots of Christian teachers and fringe Christian groups exist that hold to doctrines that are not historically orthodox, but they are still allowed to appropriate the word Christian.

Given that, how can such words be used meaningfully?

And, if this isn't too personal a question... how would you answer if someone asked you: "What religion are you?" For me, it depends on the context. Sometimes I will simply answer "Christian", but most of the time I will add some sort of qualifier, something that I think will create the right mental impression in the listener. "Evangelical Christian" sometimes, or "Protestant" if speaking to a Catholic, or "non-denominational Christian", or one of my more recent favorites, "community-church Christian". But, it's a hard question for me, and each of those answers gives a distinctly different impression to different listeners. To a more theologically educated listener, I could give a three-sentence answer that would much more accurately describe what I believe and what I live... but I haven't been able to find a name that I'm comfortable with as a label for my beliefs.

Any thoughts?


Sunday, June 03, 2007

Immigration Reform Act of 2007

Since Mark's May 2006 post on the President's speech, the illegal immigration debate has been revived in the form of the "Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007".

Opinions range from it being an important first step, to it being a dangerous amnesty that could give Democrats a permanent majority (though some are already voting), to it being too much of a burden on both illegal immigrants and employers.

The bill itself is 300+ pages. The American Immigration Lawyers Association has a helpful section-by-section summary. Most of the analysis I've found has been from conservatives opposed to the bill, such as Hugh Hewitt's analysis (summary) and politics FAQ.

The White House's "Fact Sheet" presents a positive view of the bill, though it omits some of the details which provoke contention. It does, however, hint at some peculiar aspects, such as the requirement for would-be-citizens to "touchback" (i.e. return to their home country to file their green card application), and a merit system which prefers higher skills and education in spite of the ostensive need for unskilled workers.

Solid statistics on this issue would be helpful, but they are hard to come by, in part due to policies in "sanctuary cities" which prohibit asking for or reporting a person's immigration status (and, in some cases, even cooperating with federal immigration officials). Apparently, this includes criminals. Such willful ignorance of illegality encapsulates the limbo, contradiction, and inefficacy of present legislation and enforcement.

Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman offered an amendment to this bill which would give law enforcement officers the ability to make such inquiry and report, but it was defeated. And so, we are left with approximations for the foreseeable future.

One major question about the bill is whether it will be tantamount to amnesty. i.e. it might not technically be "amnesty", but the contention is that the effect will be similar. At issue is the renewable for-fee "Z visa" which is available only to illegal immigrant workers and has probationary benefits after 24 hours even before the applications are formally approved, as well as concerns over continuing the lack of enforcement, and the sense of how illegal immigrants would fair relative to legal immigrants (i.e. rewarding lawbreakers), etc.

Is this bill a step in the right direction? Which aspects of the bill do you agree or disagree with? Which aspects will be effective? Will the bill and related laws be enforced?


Update (June 7): Michelle Malkin has been liveblogging Senate debate today, including amendments and a few failed attempts at cloture, regarding: S.1348 - A bill to provide for comprehensive immigration reform and for other purposes.

The Washington Post has a nice table summarizing the amendment votes on this bill.

Also, Senator Sessions's List of 20 Loopholes in the Senate Immigration Bill.

Update (June 28): Another vote for cloture in the Senate failed. The clarion call of the bill's opposition is that a vote for cloture is a vote for the bill, since cloture requires 60 votes to proceed, while the final vote only requires a simple majority which already exists.

Thus, some crafty Senators could vote for cloture and against the bill, to the effect of voting for the bill while still being able to tell your constituents you voted against it. The wonders of politics.