Thursday, February 23, 2017

Why It Matters That the First Lady Recited the Lord's Prayer at a Presidential Event

First Lady Melania Trump recited the Lord's Prayer at a rally held by her husband.

This event was billed as a re-election (!) campaign event, one month into Pres. Trump's first term.  Therefore, it does not come under some of the same restrictions that an official government event does.  And the First Lady is not a government official, in any case - almost nothing she does is restricted by government ethics.

My concern is not that the separation of church and state was violated.

Rather, I am troubled by the regression of Republican politicians to a solely Christian expression of public faith.

One of the great achievements after World War II was to become a nation that embraced all people of faith, and no faith.  Robert Bellah's famous essay on "Civil Religion in America" in the mid-1960s noted that, while presidents routinely invoked God in their inaugural addresses, they did not name Jesus.  Our civic culture explicitly included Catholics and Jews, along with Protestants, in the "banquet religions" of ordinary American life after the war.  After 9/11, President George W. Bush pointedly included Muslims in the faiths he invoked in naming who is included in America.

Lately, though, Republican political ritual has been content to invoke explicitly Christian statements of faith - and leave it at that, without further inclusions.

White Christian nationalism is the most likely source of, and route to, fascism in this country.  Our political culture has evolved past being exclusively Christian in order to live up to both of our mottos - E Pluribus Unum and In God We Trust.  We must not revert to religious exclusion.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Why We Should All Think Like Scientists

On Tuesday mornings I get to talk on WKYB, Danville's country radio station. This was our topic today.

Jonathan Haidt, a leader in positive psychology, emphasizes that we human beings are not selfish individuals, but a groupish social species. It is overwhelmingly a good thing that we are attached to our groups.  We try to be loyal to the group, and believe what it believes.

The bad thing that can happen from our groupishness, though, is that we tend to seek evidence that supports what the group already believes, and reject evidence which contradicts this belief.  We have a strong "confirmation bias." This bias is not simply a feature of some people's individual psychology, but of everyone's natural (and mostly admirable) tendency to be loyal to our group. Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, writes "For non-scientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe."

Science, by contrast, is the honest search for truth.  It is a hard discipline of reason and of moral candor.  All of us act like scientists in this regard sometimes.  And professional scientists do not always live up the high standards of science, even in their scientific work.

The great virtue of thinking like a scientist, a virtue we can all follow, is the ability to steel ourselves to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if that means rejecting a cherished belief of our group. This is our best defense, as individuals, as groups, and as society as a whole, against false beliefs and the hopeless conflicts they engender.

Truth is in order to goodness, and thus to happiness.