Friday, August 31, 2007

Is there a problem with poverty in Louisville--or anywhere else in America?

The Louisville Courier-Journal says that 15 percent of Louisville residents live in poverty. Is this true?

Several years ago, I debated a professor from the University of Louisville at a meeting of the Louisville Forum on the issue of welfare reform. That was during the debate that led up to the passage of welfare reform legislation in the Clinton administration.

The professor talked confidently about a number of things related to poverty, including the problem of hunger in America. I pointed out a number of things about the statistics on "poverty," among them, the fact that hunger was far less of a problem among the American poor than was obesity.

Needless to say, that got my picture in the paper the next morning, along with the headline, "Policy analyst says poor people have a problem with obsesity," or something like that.

The reporter from the Courier-Journal followed me out of the meeting, obviously hunting for the most outrageous quote he could get from me. I obliged him as best I could. "Where did you get those statistics?" he asked. "From the same place my opponent got his: from the federal government, mostly the U. S. Census." Apparently he then went out asking a number of different experts about the statistics I had quoted. But (despite what I'm sure was a concerted effort on his part) he couldn't find anyone who could dispute them. The best he could get out of them was that I had "misinterpreted" them.

On my comments about obesity for example, the best he could do was a professor somewhere who said that, yes, obesity was a problem among the poor, but that was because they ate junk food. That was the closest thing to a refutation the reporter could muster.

Several years later I had a debate with the head of social services for Boyle County at Centre College in Danville, who claimed that over 20 percent of children in Boyle County were living in "poverty." I used the same data I had used before, which met with the same indignation, although little could be said to counter it.

Here is an updated version of the statistics I used then, from Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Institute, drawn from several government reports:
  • 46 percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • 80 percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only six percent of poor households are overcrowded; two thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The typical poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.
  • 97 percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • 78 percent have a VCR or DVD player.
  • 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • 89 percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.
In Wednesday's Courier-Journal, Marcus Green writes of the problem of "poverty" in Louisville. Is there really a problem of "poverty" in Louisville, much less any other place in Kentucky? When people use a word like "poverty," they picture inadequate food, housing, or clothing. Is this really true?

Not if he is relying on the Census definition of "poverty." Part of the problem is that the Census definition involves only income earned during the year. It does not take assets into account. So if you are a business owner with three homes and a luxury yacht, but you had a business loss that year, you are considered to be living in poverty.

Real poverty is not a major problem in the United States, and certainly not in Louisville. If you want to see real poverty, go to a third world country. They know what poverty is.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

My "Bad Sports about Sports" article in today's Courier-Journal

My piece on the attempt by public schools to punish private school athletic programs for their success (see my previous post with the full version here) ran in today's Louisville Courier-Journal. Their title is, "Bad Sports about Sports."

The only good language is a dead language

The College Board has published its national profile report and, once again, students who have studied Latin have acquitted themselves well on the test. The report shows that students with a Latin background scored higher in critical reading skills than students studying any other language with the exception of Hebrew, with which it was tied for first. Here are the scores:
Note that the languages of Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem outclassed all the others by a fairly significant margin. Notice also that most schools shun these languages in their curriculum. For one of the few exceptions to this rule, check out Highlands Latin School. Also, my publisher, Memoria Press.

Morte sola lingua immortalis fit: my translation into Latin of Chesterton's dictum that "a language must die in order to become immortal."

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Can Evangelicals Write Good Literature?

Donald T. William's article "Writers Cramped," argues, among other things, that the writing of good Christian literature requires a liturgical sensibility. With only one possible exception, Williams argues, all great modern Christian literature has been written by non-evangelicals. The only possible exception he cites is Walter Wangerin, a Lutheran. And even here, he points out, you have someone from a liturgical tradition.

I don't think, however, that Wangerin is even in the same class as Flannery O'Connor or Graham Greene, which leaves us with no protestants at all except C. S. Lewis, who was also from another liturgical tradition: Anglicanism.

Williams seems concerned primarily with fiction, of course, although he includes writers noted at least as much for their nonfiction prose: Chesterton and Lewis being primary among them. Although some of Chesterton's fiction could lay a claim to greatness (particularly The Man Who Was Thursday), I'm not sure Lewis's fiction could quite equal the others on William's list. Lewis traded primarily in allegory, the closest thing in fiction to non-fiction. And, in fact, much of what Lewis said in his fiction could have been said better in the form of the essay.

Williams may indeed be right that there are no modern evangelicals who can claim literary greatness. I suspect he is. But I have a protestant to throw into the mix--one who does not come from a liturgical tradition, although it would be flirting with credulity to call him an evangelical.

Wendell Berry.

Berry's book Jayber Crowe, for example, would, I think, have to be classed as a work of Christian fiction. And, as a writer of Christian fiction, I don't see how you could exclude him from a list of Christian writers. I suppose someone might object that he is not a very orthodox Christian. I am willing to concede that point, at leas for purposes of argument. He is, officially, a Baptist, and attends, occasionally I am told, a moderate (or liberal, depending on who gets to label it) Baptist Church. He is, however, a member in good standing of a Christian denomination, and much of his writing deals in Christian themes (his environmental writing is certainly solidly planted in Genesis, for example).

The argument that he would have to be excluded would basically have to boil down to saying that, while he may be a Christian, he is not a very good one. Well, let' say that is true. Graham Greene could not be called a good Catholic, could he? Yet he would make anyone's list of great modern Christian writers. In fact, someone, somewhere, has asked the question, "Why is the best Catholic literature written by the worst Catholics?"

No. I will stand with Berry here as something of a counter-example to William's thesis that all great Christian writers come from liturgical religious traditions, although I do think his thesis is, generally speaking, a very good one.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

All bark and no bite

Attorney General Greg Stumbo is threatening to sue the Governor for having too many Republicans on the Boards of Trustees for UK and U of L. Does the Governor really need to worry? Stumbo threatened to sue the universities themselves for domestic partner programs that violated the Constitution too, but he never did. UK's program still does not meet all the criteria the AG laid down in his ruling on the issue, and U of L hasn't changed its plan at all.

Is Stumbo all bark and no bite?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Taking Their Marbles and Going Home: Public School Officials and the Politics of Being a Bad Sport

The Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) was recently rebuffed by state lawmakers when it tried to institute a plan that would have placed restrictions on private school athletic programs. A subcommittee of the General Assembly slapped down KHSAA's Proposal 2, which would have required students transferring from public to private schools--or vice versa--to sit out a year of athletic eligibility.

The rejection by lawmakers took the form of a 6-0 vote, and some public school administrators are not taking the loss lying down. Wilson Sears, a superintendent from Somerset, has placed himself at the head of a small band of public school officials, who, upset at private schools that he thinks enjoy a competitive advantage, are now threatening an athletic boycott of private schools.

In short, they are rattling their sabres and chanting "They're being mean to us!"-- words that apparently pass among some public school administrators as a compelling battle cry.

These public school officials have been getting increasingly upset that private schools, which make up a minority of the members of KHSAA, have been winning so many state athletic championships. The public schools have blamed this in large part on the fact that private schools are able to recruit athletes without having to worry about district boundaries.

In other words, public schools, which have carved up the geography and imposed strict requirements that students can attend only the schools they say they can attend, are upset that private schools don't have to do this.

And this is the fault of private schools?

Private schools operate by something called "choice." No one has to go to them. And parents can send their kids to any one they want, no matter where they live and where the school is located. This way of operating schools has resulted in better academic performance and, now, it seems, better athletic performance.

But Sears and his band of very unmerry men, who work in a system that is now being shown up not only academically, but athletically, are determined to require that private schools abide by the same policies that have apparently dragged their own schools schools down.

Why, instead of trying to impose on private schools the same policies that have put public schools at such a disadvantage, doesn't Sears start advocating that the policies that have so benefited private schools be tried out in public schools? Why, instead of requiring that everyone be brought down to his level, can't we try to bring everyone up the level of those he thinks enjoy such an advantage?

This, of course, will never happen, because it goes against the very ethos of the public school establishment and the officials who are charged with protecting it from competition.

In fact, the irony in this new debate over athletics is that athletic programs were the one place, with the exception of Title IX restrictions (may a plague be upon them), which was free from the cloying egalitarianism that has infected every other aspect of public schools. On the basketball court and on the gridiron, no one has any illusions about everyone being equal, no one is held back so that everyone else can catch up, and students are allowed not only to cooperate, but to compete.

The permissivist philosophies taught at teachers colleges that discourage teacher-directed instruction in the classroom, replace discipline with psychology, and promote "child-centered" education are noticeably absent from sports programs. Sports programs are pure meritocracies where the coach is in charge, discipline is swift, individual accomplishment is acknowledged, and there are no excuses.

In athletic programs, excellence is rewarded, and failure has a cost.

The first attempt by public school officials in KHSAA was to separate public and private school athletic competition completely. That way, public schools would never have had to face the better private school teams at all, and no one would know how they compared to one another. This may help some schools and the administrators who run them look better, but it isn't necessarily better for individual students. As one Danville student pointed out at the time, it's good for student athletes to face good opposition. It makes them better athletes.

A student, who would be detrimentally affected by a policy Sears appears to want to attempt again, knows this, but Sears himself is apparently oblivious to it. These people don't really want excellence; they only want the appearance of it. Excellence comes from strong competition, not competition neutered by self-serving political machinations.

The fact is that inequalities are going to plague athletic competition, public and private, whatever policies KHSAA implements. Public magnet schools in Louisville, for example, have similar advantages over other public schools that Sears and his friends charge that only private schools have: they can recruit throughout Jefferson County, a fertile area for athletic talent. Male does this. Manual does this. So do other such schools.

Where is the outcry?

Some schools even merge with each other to get a leg up. Recently, Harrodsburg High School was ingested by Mercer County High School. Various reasons were given for the change, but every knows the real reason: the change will result in better sports teams.

But isn't this unfair? Yes it is. It's also unfair that public schools in larger cities have an advantage over rural schools. For that matter, it's unfair that some public schools have better athletes than other schools. If the Sears Gang is really concerned with fairness, it could find plenty of problems to solve in its own back yard.

Some public school members of KHSAA are also upset that private schools lure good athletes with scholarships.

Excuse me? Did it ever occur to them that the public schools are already giving every student in their school, not just some, a free education? Doesn't that give them an monstrously unfair advantage over private schools when it comes to athletic recruitment? Shouldn't that give private schools an excuse to throw a temper tantrum and try to pass regulations penalizing public schools?

Ironically, no competent coach would abide the attitude from an athlete that some public school officials have been displaying on this issue. If a player were to throw his helmet down and complain that the other team had an unfair advantage, the coach would tell him to suck it up and get out there and play anyway.

Someone needs to tell this to Sears and his friends as they go around the state recruiting other school districts to join them in their not very sporting attempt to take their marbles and go home.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Fear and Loathing in the Homosexual Culture

Are people "homophobic" simply because they believe homosexual behavior is wrong?

Timothy Kinkaid at Box Turtle Bulletin, a pro-gay site, has a post on the "Family Impact Summit," to be held in Florida next month. Many of the sessions, as it turns out, have to do with issues relating to the cultural implications of homosexuality. Kinkaid calls the speakers at the summit (which includes figures such as James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Don Wildmon) a "Who's Who of Homophobia," which gives me the excuse I have been looking for to talk about the pejorative use of this term.

First of all, what does the term mean? Here is the Wikipedia definition:
Homophobia (from Greek ὁμο homo(sexual), "same, equal" + φοβία (phobia), "fear", literally "fear of the equal") is the fear of, aversion to, or discrimination against homosexuality or homosexuals. Several dictionaries also associate irrationality with this type of fear. It can also mean hatred, hostility, disapproval of, or prejudice towards homosexual people, sexual behavior, or cultures, and is generally used to insinuate bigotry.
So, briefly, our definition is this: A bigoted or irrational fear or hostility toward homosexuals or their behavior.

Ironically, the term originally had a clinical psychological use and was applied, not to non-homosexuals, but to homosexuals themselves who had a fear of their own homosexuality. It is now used as a political devil-term for people who refuse to lay down and play dead when gay rights groups try to assert their political will on those with whom they disagree.

Before all the national psychological professional associations were politically intimidated into accepting homosexuality as normal, "homophobia" was seen as a psychological condition of homosexuals themselves. Now it used by homosexuals to designate a political pathology of they see in non-homosexuals who refuse to bow to those same political pressures.

The term, in short, is a political term masquerading as a psychological or moral term. Politics always trumps science for gay rights groups.

Homosexuals and the network of groups they have populated our culture with assert that homosexuality cannot be considered wrong because it has no moral implications whatsoever. But in order say this they have to maintain that sexual behavior per se is without moral implications--hardly a self-evident truth.

What has happened is this: homosexuals want to politically intimidate people into believing that, while homosexual behavior is not wrong, the belief that homosexual behavior is wrong is itself wrong. In short, homosexual behavior is not wrong, but opposing it is. It is curious that people who are so adamant about the fact that their behavior has no moral implications should be so adamant about the moral implications of the behavior of those with whom they disagree--simply because they disagree. Homosexuality is morally acceptable, but disagreeing with it is not.

Before politics took over, homosexuality was seen as a psychological malady; now homosexual groups are demanding that the rest of us see opposition to homosexuality as itself a psychological condition--and one that needs to be suppressed. They have created a new morality, whose creed is that no one shall disagree with their political agenda, and this new morality, more strident and intolerant even than the old one, is to be to be legislated in place of the old one. And all the while they declare that legislating morality is wrong. Out with the old tyrants, and in with the new.

No one is to be allowed to say that homosexuality is wrong, and no one is allowed to say that opposing homosexuality is right. Homosexual behavior was once illegal; now it is beginning to become more and more apparent that gay rights groups would like to see opposition to homosexuality as itself illegal.

In one Kentucky school district, students are now required to undergo sensitivity training to rid them of their belief that homosexuality is morally wrong. In fact the policy is so Draconian that even the ACLU is now defending a group of parents in a case to overturn the policy. And many colleges now impose speech codes that restrict any public expression of disagreement with homosexuals.

And incidentally, why are gays so intent upon demanding that other people approve of what they do? If I weren't so hostile to the influence of Freud over every aspect of our thought and culture, I would introduce the theory that the whole gay indignation industry, which demands that the rest of the culture cede to its political and psychological claims, was based on a deep-seated psychological insecurity of a group of people who think that other people's approval will somehow make them feel better. But as someone who disagrees with Freud, and thinks that you can't psychoanalyze whole groups of people anyway, I cannot say this.

But do we need to appeal to Freud? What if we were to drop the psychobabble and simply and unapologetically took up the traditional language of morality? What could we say then? What we could say is this: That here we have a bunch of individual people who are morally (rather than psychologically) insecure about what they are doing. And, like so many people who feel guilty about their actions, they think they will feel better about it if they can get other people to approve of what they do. This is why, for example, people with vices often try to recruit others to join in their pursuit of them: it assuages their guilt.

If gays really thought that what they were doing were morally acceptable, they wouldn't so badly need the rest of us to affirm them--and they wouldn't need to politically intimidate the people who, trying to abide by their own moral principles, refuse to give them that affirmation.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

12 Things Bloggers Shouldn't Do

Some thoughts on how to avoid bad blogging:

1. Don't talk about what you're going to talk about. Just talk about it. Is it just me, or does anyone else become extremely annoyed when they get posts on their feed reader that talk about what the blog is about and what its purpose is. That shouldn't have to be said. If you're doing something, you don't need to point out what your doing because your doing it and therefore it isn't necessary to point it out. A good blog title (or subtitle) serves the same purpose.

2. Don't self-promote your blog in your posts. If your posts are good, they promote themselves. There's one particular blog on which half the posts are about how great the blog is. No blog that spends half its posts talking about how great it is can possibly be a good blog.

3. Don't be boring. I think there are some bloggers who think they absolutely must blog every day, content be damned. If you can't write an interesting post on Tuesday, then just hang it up until Thursday when you've got something interesting to say.

4. Don't post images (particularly large ones) unless they are directly relevant (and necessary) to the post. If you've got an exclusive image of the first giant squid ever captured, that's one thing, but otherwise, fugget aboud it.

5. Don't post too much. Some blogs just simply have too many posts. If they were all interesting, that would be one thing, but if there are 5 to 10 posts a day on the blog I can't imagine how they could all be interesting. You just finally get tired of hitting the "mark post as read" button on your feed reader and you unsubscribe.

6. Don't post too little. If you seldom post to your blog, then people finally stop checking and your blog is forgotten.

7. Don't write cryptic or uninformative titles. Titles should do several things: 1. Be complete: They need to describe what is in the post is about as fully but succinctly as possible; 2. Be provocative: the post must give the reader a reason to visit the blog; 3. Be clever: This isn't always possible, but a well-written and clever title tells the reader that the post is likely to share the same characteristics. With the advent of the feed reader, titles have become much more important. Often, I judge whether I'm going to read the post solely on the basis of the title. Some readers only list the headline, so that may be all the reader sees--and the only determinant of whether the user actually reads it.

8. Don't be superfluous. Some blogs try to do what too many other blogs already do. It serves no purpose, for example to be the first to break a story, unless 1. It's an important story, and 2. You're really the first one to break it. With very few exceptions, this is not possible for a blog. The vast majority of bloggers have no business trying to tell their readers something new. Instead, they should be about something else, like telling readers something interesting, or unusual, or edifying, or outrageous, or humorous.

9. Don't try to be funny if you aren't. Humor is like poetry: it's either very good or very bad. The worst kind of post is one that the blogger thinks is funny but the reader doesn't.

10. Don't write posts that are too long. I violate this one too much myself, partly because I use my blog to write drafts of articles and try ideas out. But bloggers who have other objectives need to keep their posts short. A blog post almost can't be too short. I realized one day that the ideal blog post was the kind of thing I used to read in "The Week" section of National Review magazine years ago. It was a series of short, pithy observations on current events. Some were profound, some were very funny, but they were all witty and amusing. Most of them had great punch lines. I now consciously try to aim for this kind of post (with variable success). Blog posts should either focus on one point or be in the form of a list. If you do write longer articles they should have two or three clear points related to a theme or unified with some central metaphor.

11. Don't publish incomplete thoughts. If you want your blog to have a decent readership, and are not just using it for personal experimental purposes, your posts, unless they are very, very short, need to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They need to be crafted. There's just too much raw information on the Internet. The only thing that is going to stand out is writing that does something interesting with that raw information.

12. Don't write badly. This is perhaps an obvious one, but it is often ignored. Not only should there be an art evident in what you say and how you say it, it ought to follow the standard rules for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Otherwise, it simply looks careless, ignorant, or, worse, affected. Commas ought to be where commas ought to be, and variant spellings are not very entertaining, except in dialogue. Words that should be capitalized should be capitalized, and words that should not be capitalized should not be capitalized--especially for purposes of emphasis. We don't have typewriters anymore, and have italics ready at hand for that purpose. The AP Style Guide was created for a purpose. Use it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hypocritically accusing hypocrites of hypocrisy

Yesterday's Louisville Courier-Journal sported a cartoon by Scott Coffman on its editorial page attacking the Family Foundation. It shows the corner of the building (presumably its foundation), and on each brick has a word written on it: multiple marriages, divorce, avarice, patriarchy, infidelity, immaturity, arrogance, sexual problems, hatred, fear, indifference, affairs, etc.

I presume the point was that the people who publicly defend the model of the traditional family are not perfect practitioners of it themselves, which is of course true, although not particularly insightful or enlightening. In fact, no one is going to be mistaking this cartoonist for Jeff MacNelly or Herblock anytime soon.

Nor does it say anything about the soundness of any set of principles that it's adherents do not live up to the principles themselves. (See my "A Paean to Hypocrisy"). And if it were true that a set of principles could be judged by whether its adherents followed them perfectly themselves, then what would it say about people who are constantly talking about the evils of hatred and fear that they see in cultural conservatives that they have such hatred and fear toward the cultural conservatives they criticize?

It obviously makes people like Coffman feel good about themselves when they find hypocrisy in others. But the worst kind of hypocrisy is accusing someone else of it when you're engaging in it yourself.

Monday, August 20, 2007

To be normal, or not to be normal: that is the question

Comments like these bring to mind once again the bizarre spectacle of a group of people who spend the majority of their public remarks opposing everyone else's concept of normality while at the same time expressing their concern that they be considered normal by everyone else.

Go figure.

Using partial birth abortion to kill chickens

My good friend Mike Janocik at Kentucky Right to Life sent me a copy of the following article he did for the Louisville Courier-Journal on the issue of cruelty to chickens that was just priceless. No word yet from Planned Parenthood on whether they are supporting this proposed procedure:
All of us should be deeply troubled by the spectacle caught on videotape of poultry workers torturing helpless chickens in the course of a day's work. The torture of animals contradicts the goodness of God's creation and human dignity. Many of us were profoundly offended by such heinous acts.

In an effort to alleviate the offensiveness of abusing chickens, I would like to propose a method of killing chickens that has a long pedigree, is perfectly acceptable in our culture and, and is approved by the U. S. Supreme Court.

First, grasp the chicken by the feet and pull it out of its container until the head remains inside the cage. Next, place the index finger on one side of the bird's neck and the middle finger on the other side. Hold the chicken steady as its wings and legs will be flailing about outside the cage. Next, take a sharp object--scissors perhaps--and stick them into the base of the chicken's head and then expand them until there is a sizable hole. Finally, insert a tube and suction out the chicken's brain, leaving it dead and limp. Remove the dead chicken from the cage.

If this method, called partial-birth abortion in humans, is good enough for unborn babies, it ought to be just fine for chickens.

Mike Janocik, Louisville

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Harold Bloom's critique of Harry Potter

I am working on a piece titled, "The Return of Real Danger: Why is Harry Potter so Popular?" In the process, I ran across this interesting critique by the great literary critic Harold Bloom in the Wall Street Journal. It's called, "Can 35 Million Book Buyers Be Wrong? Yes." After it ran, the editors called and told Bloom that they had never seen anything like it: they had received 400 negative response letters and only one positive one, and the latter they said they suspected he had written himself!

Friday, August 17, 2007

My televised debates from 1996 to the present

I have just posted a linked list of my televised debates from 1996 to the present on Kentucky Educational Television's "Kentucky Tonight" program in the left hand column. You may have to scroll down the page a few times to see the list. There are 18 debates on quite a number of different subjects, each of which listed on the link. All the debates from 2002 on are in streaming video format and the links point directly to the streaming video page.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Arctic Ocean Getting Warm; Seals Vanish and Icebergs Melt."--Washington Post, Nov. 2, 1922

John Lockwood, upon discovering numerous such newspaper headlines in the 1920's and 30's, which turn out to have encompassed the ten hottest years in modern times.

Don't think you'll see this in Al Gore's next fancy slide show on global warming.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Do higher ACT scores mean KY public schools are improving?

The short answer is, "No." But don't tell that to the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), the Louisville Courier-Journal, or the Lexington Herald-Leader, who all were completely mum on the fact that the increase in average Kentucky ACT scores may have nothing to do with public school improvement at all, and everything to do with increased performance of private school students, whose scores are included in the average state score that ACT reports.

The scores for the test, which is taken by college-bound seniors, have risen from 20.6 last year to 20.7 this year. Not a great leap forward in any case. But when the improvement was announced in the state's two largest newspapers, there was Kevin Noland, the interim state school commissioner, and Lisa Gross, the KDE spokesperson, talking up how this is good news when they may actually have had nothing to do with it.

According to the Blue Grass Institute's Dick Innes, a similar rise in scores from 2004 to 2005 was due exclusively to the increase in performance of private school students. It didn't get reported then either.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Does Christianity make people better?

Does Christianity make people better? That is the question a commenter asked about one of my recent posts. A writer on the De-Conversion blog argued that the existence of bad Christians is evidence against Christianity. I pointed out:
  1. The fact that Christians sin is not only not inconsistent with Christianity, but follows from it.
  2. You can't condemn Christians as bad without employing Christian principles to do it.
But "Slapdash" asks:
[I]f the gospel of Christ is really so transformational, wouldn't we at least see some kind of positive difference in the behaviors of Christians, as compared to the behaviors of those who do not know Christ? I wouldn't expect sinlessness in Christians, but I would expect to see, for example, statistically significant differences in the divorce rate of Christians as compared to non-Christians. Which I don't think exists at this point in time.

On an evangelical note, it seems to me a tough argument to say Christ can transform your life, help you battle sin, if all the Christians you see are pretty much just as sinful as anybody else. Where's the evidence of transformation?
Good question.

Let's assume that we were capable of actually measuring the "goodness" quotient of groups of people, and we found that, as some particular point in time, Christians as a group were no better, ethically speaking, than non-Christians as a group. Suppose we found that the goodness quotient of Christians was no higher than that of non-Christians. By the way, I don't think we can do this, but let's assume that we could.

Is this evidence that Christianity does not transform lives? Does it mean that Christianity does not make people better? On the face of it it would seem to, but, in fact, it does not.

The only way you could say it does is if you knew what those same Christians were like before they became Christians. If you are trying to determine whether people become better after becoming Christians, you can't do it by comparing them to non-Christians. You have to compare them with themselves. You can't determine whether one group of people is better after a change than before by comparing them to another group of people. You have to compare people before the change to the same people afterwards. Only then can you say with any definitiveness whether Christianity makes people different.

To simply cite statistics about how Christians compare to non-Christians is irrelevant. What were the people who are now Christians like before and are they better or worse now? I don't think there is or ever will be a study that can answer this question. It can only be answered by common sense.

G. K. Chesterton was once asked why he had become a Catholic. His response was simply, "to have my sins forgiven." If there is an institution that offers those who join the forgiveness of their sins, you wouldn't expect it to be terribly attractive to sinless people. Quite the opposite. It would be attractive to sinful people. They're the ones who need forgiveness. "I came not to call the righteous," said Jesus, "but sinners to repentance."

So it would not be terribly surprising to learn that Christians were even worse is some ways than non-Christians. But that wouldn't be inconsistent with the idea that the same people were better after than before they became Christians.

In fact, if you look at the post I was responding to, what you find is a person who discovered the evil that many Christians do through counseling with them. And how did this happen? It happened, presumably, because the people he was seeing knew that what they were doing was wrong and were seeking some way to deal with it. This is what he described as the "Christian underbelly."

First of all, the fact that they were seeking help says something about their state of mind. If they were not Christians, would they have been as enthusiastic about seeking help? If their sense of right and wrong had not be changed by their Christian beliefs, would they even have thought they needed it? The writers says these were people who did some very bad things. But at least they were people who knew they were bad things and were trying to do something about it; otherwise, they wouldn't have been there in the first place.

And, second, did the author of the original post have an equal amount of experience with the "non-Christian underbelly?" It is not likely. First, he himself says he was a "pastoral counselor," who was seeing people from "within the Christian community." What would he have found if his counseling experience was outside the church? It could very well have been much worse--or maybe not. People outside the church would seemingly be much less likely to realize that they had a problem, and therefore much less likely to seek out counseling.

So, does Christianity change people? I think it does because I have seen it change people. And if someone is going to claim that it does not, they've have to find a better way to argue their case than the ones they're coming up with over at the De-Conversion blog.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Keep circumcision safe and legal

A prominent gay blogger is calling for circumcision to be universally banned.

D. Stephen Heersink, who runs "The Gay Species" blog, argues that circumcision is against the Geneva Convention, which calls it "barbaric" and "inhumane". Hmmm. Circumcision is against the Geneva Convention, but abortion isn't? Boy, that certainly tells us something, doesn't it?

Heersink also argues that it "desensitizes" men. And we know how bad the problem of desensitized men is today, don't we?

Here in Kentucky we have people wanting to mandate a vaccine that prevents HPV for all middle-school girls because it would save lives. But recent studies show that circumcision dramatically reduces HIV transmission, so, by the same logic, we should mandate circumcision middle school boys, an idea I have advocated, tongue firmly implanted in cheek.

What I wouldn't give to see Heersink and Rep. Kathy Stein together discussing their views on circumcision.

Keep circumcision safe and legal.

Arguing against Christianity by assuming it

There are sites on the Internet devoted to almost everything, which accounts for a site called "De-Conversion," which provides resources for "skeptical, de-converting, or former Christians." I'm not sure I completely understand the psychology of those who get religion about losing theirs, but, hey, it's the Internet.

In a recent post, someone identifying himself as "a Thinking Man" discusses some of the reasons he has now grown skeptical about the whole God thing, having experienced a conversion earlier in life. He discusses two issues in the post which he apparently sees as part of the same narrative, but which in fact are strangely inconsistent--something you would think a "Thinking Man" would have thought about.

He says, first, that he began having doubts about Christianity through his counseling experience, which resulted, he says, in his coming into contact with the "Christian underbelly": Christians who do bad things:
From within the Christian community I have personally come across ’senior’ Christians involved in multiple affairs, anal rape, child sex abuse, cottaging in the local toilets, visiting male and female prostitutes, physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual abuse, wife beating, and bullying.
In other words, our "Thinking Man" apparently hit upon a great discovery: Christians sin--some pretty brazenly. One wonders: is this something that he did not know before? Or, more to the point, does he really think this is inconsistent with Christianity? Does Christianity proclaim that Christians do not sin, so that when we find they do we can press charges when we find out they do?

In fact, not only is the fact that Christians sin not inconsistent with Christianity, it is, in fact, a confirmation of it. The thought that "Thinking Man" had not apparently had before is one that is familiar to every Christian pastor with the least amount of counseling experience: Christians sin too. Had "Thinking Man" been paying attention on Sunday morning, he would have noticed that this is one of the reasons they get together every Sunday morning to confess and ask forgiveness.

To try to blame Christianity because some Christians do bad things is sort of like blaming the law for the fact that people violate it. We don't hold it against the laws on homicide that some people engage in murder; we don't blame the rules of accounting when some people engage in fraudulent business practices; and we don't fuss at the police officer who pulls us over for running a red light that the real problem is that there are laws against red lights. So why are we blaming Christianity for the fact that some Christians sin?

In fact, without Christianity, there is no such thing as sin at all. In his book, The Everlasting Man, G. K. Chesterton points out that the next best thing to being completely inside Christianity is being completely outside of it. The problem that critics of Christianity have is that they are neither completely inside or completely outside of it. They criticize it from a philosophical position somewhere in between. They stay just close enough to it to trade upon the qualities they need to oppose it.

In trying to destroy something without being far enough away, you end up destroying yourself along with it. If you decided to blow up the Empire State Building, you better not be hanging around just outside the lobby when you do; otherwise, you're in for it. But this is exactly the position of someone like our "Thinking Man". If he were really outside Christianity, he would criticize it not because its adherents did bad things, but because there were no bad things for its adherents to do. He would criticize it not because it was wrong, but because there was no such thing as right or wrong.

But as it is, in criticizing Christianity, he is forced to borrow Christian ideas in order to accomplish his purpose, and as soon as he does that, he has undermined his own criticism. When he says that there is something wrong with Christianity because of sin, he is assuming the very notion of sin--something quite nonsensical outside the Christian view of the world.

And if his first point doesn't defeat itself, his second point will do the job quite nicely:
As part of my counsellor training I did a 3 year course that forced me to confront a very difficult issue that I had been wanting to avoid. Up until this point I had taken an evangelical view of homosexuality. Homosexuality was wrong because the Bible said so. I was to be compassionate towards gays, but not condone their practice. That was easy as I didn’t personally know any gays. On my course, two of the three tutors were gay. During the three years I got to know them, deeply respect them, and grew increasingly confused and ashamed as I listened to their stories of their inner struggles. I also started to read up-to-date research on homosexuality (Wilson, G. and Rahman, Q. (2005) Born Gay: The Psychobiology of Sex Orientation. London: Peter Owen) and concluded that I could no longer toe the party line. And if my party line was wrong on this, it could no longer be trusted and was probably wrong on lots of other things as well.
His first argument is that Christianity is bad because some Christians do bad things. His second argument is that Christianity is bad because it calls some of the things Christians do bad. In other words, his two arguments against Christianity are exactly opposite each other. He says on the one hand that Christianity allows too much, and on the other that it condemns too much: that it is wrong because some of its actions are evil and, at the same time, that it is wrong because some of the actions it calls evil are not wrong. It is at once too tolerant and too intolerant--sometimes about the same things.

When someone criticizes something because it does one thing, and also because it does the exact opposite, it is usually a sign, not that there is something wrong with the thing, but that there is something wrong with the critic.

His treatment of homosexuality is especially interesting. Somehow, despite the same experience with several different kinds of sin, his view of homosexuality changes, but his view of other sexual behavior does not. He comes to an acceptance of homosexuality when he gets to know homosexuals better, and finds out about their "inner struggles". Did he not get to know his heterosexual patients, and find out about their "inner struggles"? And if so, why does he come to accept homosexuality, but continue to reject heterosexual deviance?

I have gotten to know homosexuals as well. They've all been nice people. I've also met nice adulterers. I've probably even met nice child abusers and wife beaters for all I know. I'm sure many of them have inner struggles of which I am not aware. But what exactly does that have to do with whether the behavior is these nice people engage in is right or wrong?

The same experience with one behavior results in acceptance, and with another continued rejection. Why?

I don't begrudge our Thinking Man for rejecting Christianity. But if he's going to reject it, then he ought to reject it on some kind of consistent basis--and for reasons that don't assume the very position he is arguing against.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Voting for myself

My son (who I made the mistake of teaching logic) argues that I should vote for Ron Paul for president. My response to him has been that I don't think Paul can win. My son responds that it shouldn't matter, and he points to the maledictions I have cast against those who engage in what I call "tactical voting"--the practice of limiting your options in an election only to those who are most electable.

I respond that, yes, I am against tactical voting, but at the same time some dark horse candidates are so dark that you can't even see them, and that I am thinking of going with Fred (Thomson, that is). Thompson may not be as conservative as Paul, but he is very conservative and very electable. My son's response is that I should vote for the person who is closest to my own views, no matter how electable he may be.

But my son, who is a philosophy major at UK and no mean debater, fails to see the logical consequence of his argument. If I am to vote for the person who most closely shares my views, no matter what his electability, then who should I vote for?


That's right. The person who shares my views most closely is myself. Now, admittedly, I am completely unelectable, but, according to my son's argument, that doesn't matter.

Therefore, I am the one I should vote for.

But this argument has a further consequence: if each person should vote for the person who most closely shares his views, then each person should vote for himself. So not only should I vote for myself, but everyone should vote for himself. Furthermore, my son should vote for himself as well. And, therefore, he should not vote for Ron Paul.

Those who live by logic must die by it.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Billy the Greek

Popular Courier-Journal sports columnist Billy Reed has started a new state political blog, and it turns out that he is--Ta Daaaah!--a liberal Democrat.

And heaven knows we need more of those in the state political media.

But he's more than a Democrat: he's a Casinocrat. Reed is casting his lot with the casinos in the now high profile debate over expanded gambling being generated by the gubernatorial campaign. His blog is titled "Straight n' Flush", and the masthead has an image of a black jack table sharing space with the Declaration of Independence. And the connection is?

In fact, it appears that the casino issue is the chief motivating factor behind Reed's new blog, the welcome message of which says:
Welcome to the place where Hall-of-Fame journalist Billy Reed gives it to you straight on casino gambling and other issues so you can flush away the misinformation...
He promises to "bring the casino gambling debate to a new level!" He doesn't mention whether that level is higher or lower.

One wonders what he's going to do with the misinformation spouted by casino interests. Is he going to flush that too? Or do the rest of us still have to do it? Chances are Reed will only add to the misinformation that Kentuckians will have to endure from a predatory industry that preys on the very people for whom Democrats claim to stand.

The United States: Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average

If you can't beat 'em, stop comparing yourselves to 'em. This is a favorite motto among Bill Bennett used to call the "Blob"--that established body of educrats that runs our government schools.

The latest example of this is the now not so quiet act by the United States to drop out of an international study that compares the math and science skills of students in different countries. Called TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) Advanced 2008, the study has increasingly shown the sorry state of math and science education in this country, according to Newsweek magazine.

The interesting thing is that this strategy will probably work--if, by "working", we mean that it will make us look better. Kentucky did this in the 1990's when, under the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), it stopped using standardized tests to measure student achievement and began using its own test, called the KIRIS test (now titled "CATS")--a test that measured Kentucky students, not against students in other states, but only against themselves. This resulted in the appearance of progress among Kentucky students when the data gathered from tests many students still took told a different story.

Now the U. S. will not have to answer questions about those embarrassing results showing us scoring lower than every country except for Cyprus and South Africa.

And they wonder why home schooling is becoming so popular.

Monday, August 06, 2007


The only two consistent views of the world are Christianity or existentialism. Everything else is playing pretend.

Ingmar Bergman, a partisan of the latter view, died this last week. One of the Swedish filmaker's predominant themes was the consequences of the non-existence of God. You can see it on full display in what is perhaps his greatest film, The Seventh Seal. It is a stark and frightening movie.

Unlike the new atheists Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, Bergman, along with existentialist writers like Nietzsche and Sartre, faced their atheism honestly and squarely. The new atheists try to hang on to some sort of absolute morality or meaning in the world despite the fact that the only rational grounding these beliefs can possibly have is God.

Bergman and his fellow existentialists knew that there are two alternatives available to men: a world in which God exists and there is meaning, or one in which he does not exist and everything is absurd. Take your pick.

I don't agree with the existentialists, but at least they are intellectually consistent, which is more than can be said of the new atheists.

Friday, August 03, 2007

The seven reasons people do things

In light of Wednesdays report by the New York Times that researchers at the University of Texas at Austin have discovered 237 reasons why people have sex (apparently in addition to the obvious one), I thought it might be useful to point out that there are only seven reasons that anyone does anything. And lest I be accused of a cooking up a misguided and dangerous psychological novelty, let me point out that this comes from Aristotle's book, Rhetorica.

We join wisdom in progress, from Chapter 10 of Book I, as Aristotle explains:
Now every action of every person either is or is not due to that person himself. Of those not due to himself some are due to chance, the others to necessity; of these latter, again, some are due to compulsion, the others to nature. Consequently all actions that are not due to a man himself are due either to chance or to nature or to compulsion. All actions that are due to a man himself and caused by himself are due either to habit or to rational or irrational craving. Rational craving is a craving for good, i.e. a wish--nobody wishes for anything unless he thinks it is good. Irrational craving is twofold, viz. anger and appetite.
In other words, the seven reasons people do things are:
  1. Chance
  2. Nature
  3. Compulsion
  4. Habit
  5. Rational craving
  6. Anger
  7. Appetite
Now I don't want to belabor the obvious, ... but, come to think of it, that is what I spend 95 percent of my time doing anyway. In fact, according the blog subtitle, that is my chief purpose. In any case, in regard to the intrepid researchers at the University of Texas at Austin who are trying to figure out why people have sex, they could have made their job a lot easier by observing this ancient and honorable canon. If they had done so, they would have discerned that there are only a small number of possible reasons for people having sex.

I'm tempted here to offer a pop quiz as to which they are, but this is supposed to be a G-rated blog, and I think I want to move on to another topic now.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

I rest my case

Okay, folks, this is almost scary.

Only three days ago, I made the observation that our regnant scientism is causing us to feel a need to seek confirmation of our most basic intuitive beliefs in research evidence. We are getting into the habit of thinking that the only way to be certain of the things that stare us in the face is to look back on them through the many-lensed mechanism of modern science and see if they show up. We seem to think that the things that are most certain must be established on the basis of things less certain than the things themselves--that, in short, we are trying to confirm obvious things by appealing to things that are less obvious. It is as if I were to go and water my garden, umbrella in hand, in the middle of a rain storm--and thought it was a perfectly normal thing to do.

Well, the rhetorical gods have smiled on me. Today the New York Times reports that researchers at the University of Texas wanted to find out why people have sex. Pause a moment if you will, and ponder this fact. On the other hand, maybe you'd better not.

Here are some of the reasons, according to these enterprising researches, people gave for having sex:
  • "I was frustrated and needed relief"
  • "I was bored"
  • "It seemed like good exercise"
  • "The person smelled nice"
  • "The opportunity presented itself"
  • "I wanted to get a job"
  • "I wanted to end the relationship" (???)
  • "It was a favor to someone"
  • "I wanted to get rid of a headache"
  • "I thought it would help me fall asleep"
And then there is my personal favorite: "I wanted to see what all the fuss was about."

I am not sure what is more frightening: that there are researchers at the University of Texas who don't know why people have sex, or that there are people who would seriously give these answers to a researcher.

I am tempted, in the wake of the release of this study, to call on everyone to head to the nearest fallout shelter and take refuge until this cultural crisis is over. The only thing preventing me from taking this extreme measure is my fear that I might have to share space with one of the study's respondents--that and the fact that I am not sure they even have fallout shelters anymore.

Next up on the University of Texas research agenda: A study on why people breathe.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Did Sartre get religion?

Maverick Philosopher posts a link to about the atheist existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre "getting religion" near the end of his life. I have heard references to this story, but assumed it was one the many evangelical urban myths that seem to abound. Turns out, according to the site, that Sartre did take a religious turn near the end of his life--toward Judaism.

The story, according to the report, is based on an interview with Sartre conducted by Benny Levy, his personal secretary, which ran in the French magazine Le Nouvel Observateur a month before Sartre's death in 1980, leaving Sartre's many atheist fans in a difficult intellectual position. Levy, who himself returned to Judaism later in life, died in 2003.

Again this is from a website, and this IS the Internet, after all, but it doesn't seem implausible.

Sartre is a sort of atheist icon for many people, and the story that he may have abandoned his own position near the end of his life would, if true, obviously be a difficult one for some people to have to stomach.

It could just go to show that no one can really face a meaningless existence--or one, apropos of Sartre, in which the only meaning comes from ourselves--in an amoral world.

Smoking up in smoke at Disney

Just in case we needed any more object lessons in how morality is being turned upside down, D. Andrew Kern over at Besidethequeue reports that Disney has banned all smoking from its movies. We assume that sex and violence are still acceptable to the folks who are busy about squandering Walt's legacy.

This is also, by the way, further proof of my theory that health is the new religion for people who have abandoned their old one.

New hate crime: putting a Koran in a toilet

We're filing this in the "Decline of Western culture" file:

Michelle Malkin asks the question, Which of these is a hate crime in America?

A) Submerging a crucifix in a jar of urine.

B) Burning the American flag.

C) Putting a Koran in a toilet.

According to a news report, a 23 year-old student at Pace University in New York was charged for the hate crime of C), putting a Koran in a toilet.

Go figure.