Will the Sacred Save Us from our own Reason?

I came across an article on the blog Science on Religion a little bit ago, and it made the argument about how powerfully destructive human reasoning can be. With our brains we humans have figured out great ways to ravage the land with ever-increasing efficiency and has pushed us to the environmental limits. Unmitigated, self-serving rationality can be destructive.

The solution? The need for certain cultural axioms, assumed without or beyond reason, in particular the notion of the sacred. If it is taboo to say or do a certain thing, then your create an automatic cultural brake towards all sorts of potentially detrimental behaviors. Without these cultural axioms, all sorts of doom can be expected.

While thoughtfully written, with a few swipes at New Atheists and IFLS that seemed more obligatory than insightful, it left us to beg the question: which axioms or sacred beliefs? Because it seems that the author (a PhD candidate at Boston University) already has a set of goals in mind, which means he wants there to be some particular sacred beliefs in place. Not just any. Which is very much the case because some sacred beliefs would count exactly contrary to his own goals of planetary preservation.

There has been a fair bit of opposition to environmentalism by American Protestants, and that has been the case for quite some time. That seems to be in part because of the belief among some that it is the sacred duty to use all of the resources of the earth, that they were placed here for a purpose. The notion of “subduing the earth” is supposed to be derived from Genesis, and that this was in part a reason for a lack of Christian support for the environmental movement was argued by L.J. White (1967) “The historical roots of our ecological crisis”, Science 155:1203-7. Much research has gone into this question, and it is still generally the case that some of the loudest opponents to combating climate change invoke biblical reasoning. So it seems that the cultural axiom of “subduing the earth” for its natural treasures is leading to exactly the sorts of doom that pure reason was supposed to have done.

So how are we supposed to get the right cultural axioms? If reason is off the table, we are left with what, religious authorities? Straight-up priestcraft? This sounds more like snobbish elitism trying to control the (reasonable?) masses.

Moreover, since all cultural groups, religious or otherwise, are going to have their own notions of the sacred or what constitute their cultural axioms, how do they figure out what to do when those cultures interact? How does the environmental/hippie culture deal with the slash-and-burn earth-subduers? Another holy war or two? Because if reasoning cannot decide, then what is left besides violence (a point made in part by Hector Avalos in Fighting Words)?

All of this is premised on what seems to be an absurd position, that pure reason has only one goal and cares not for the consequences. It also fails to understand that reason is motivated by what we already value, and we can have conflicting values. Obviously we want to have nice things, but we also notice the negative side effects. I want chocolate cake, but I want to lose weight. I want to have a car, but I don’t want to contribute to eventual sea level rise. How do we find the right path? Well, shouldn’t we be reflecting on it and seeing what appears to be the best way forward? Shouldn’t we be using … reason?

Moreover, reasoning is the common currency we can use across cultures. It’s about finding common beliefs and goals and then using logic and evidence to get the globally desired result. Cultural axioms fail to do that for the very defining fact that they are culturally relative and not cross-cultural. That isn’t to say the process gets us to where we want in a timely or efficient manner. Humans tend to stink at the process, and our own tribalism gets in the way. We tend to use our reasoning all too often as rationalization for our sectarian beliefs or goals. That is rather apparent in the news with the Kim Davis court battles and her specious arguments for religious freedom to not do her constitutional duties. Her supposedly sacred beliefs and bad reasons are getting in the way. (And remember, the marriage debate only moved forward because we said the current definition of marriage wasn’t uncompromisingly sacred but was relative and malleable as it historically has been.)

The solution isn’t more balkinization of beliefs, it’s being better reasoners and defrocking bad arguments and political stances. It doesn’t matter what is the sacred belief because of the consequences of her actions. Making the marriage debate a taboo is simply to undermine justice and freedom.

Now, it is true that pure reason cannot tell us what our values ought to be. Reasoning needs premises. We might find out we have stored up in our heads inconsistent premises (which is almost certainly the case for all of us), but it is from there we winnow out a more consistent position. From this we do our meta-ethics. Not from fist-pounding at some alter of the sacred, bestowed with power by mere say-so.


Does Obama Hate German Home-Schoolers? The Deportation Case of the Romeikes

The conservative news and blogosphere has been exploding because of the story of Uwe and Hannelore Romeike, a married couple from Germany with several children. Back in 2006 the family was resisting the German government’s law that all children must attend public schooling. The Romeikes instead preferred homeschooling, which meant they were going to be fined per child, per day, and they may lose the custody of their children. The most useful webpage about the case I have found has numerous, long quotations from the US legal decisions that detail the history of this case, which you can find here.

A few details to note are that the family did go to court in Germany, but there they lost their cases. The fines were becoming very large (7000 euro, while the family had an income of 12,000), so in 2008 the Romeikes fled to the United States for political asylum. In 2010 a US immigration judge, Lawrence O. Burman, granted them asylum. Then in 2012, the decision was repealed by Immigration Board of Appeal. There was also a peer-reviewed paper back in 2011 about the case, which you can read here. You will also be able to read the case the Romeikes (more correctly, their lawyers) made in their opening statements here, the DOJ’s responses here, and a response to that response here.

So, the basics of the case are if the Romeikes have a case for political asylum, and that means they have to show that they are escaping a sort of political persecution, in this case by the German government. They contend that the law forcing their children to attend public school is not religiously neutral, hence it is biased against certain religious practices, and this is a violation of human rights. To make the case that their religious practices are being persecuted, they argue that they are a “particular social group”, the subject of the legal paper I mentioned above.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is arguing that the Romeikes cannot show that they are the sort of social group that is the subject of such persecution. They make the points that not many religious people in Germany argue to homeschool their children (only 500 in a population of 82 million actively homeschool), and not all who want to homeschool are doing so on religious grounds. Some argued that they worried about bus routes, others that the material wasn’t sufficiently challenging, or there were noisy classrooms; all these groups were fined as the Romeikes were. This suggests there is not a homogeneous “particular social group” that the Romeikes belong to that makes them the subject of persecution, so their appeal for political asylum is invalid. (It should also be noted that the European Human Rights Court back in 2006 decided on a similar case, agreeing that Germany has the right to force all children to attend public school; you can read that decision here. That decision also pissed off conservatives in Europe.) Continue reading

Costs and Benefits to College – Is It Worth It?

You would think someone like me, a grad student hoping to get his PhD in the not-to-distant future, would not even be thinking about the costs of education. I’m also super-lucky that I don’t have a gigantic student loan debt to worry about, and that is primarily because of smart decisions done by others before I could even articulate the problem (thank you Mom and Dad!). But then again you see people that have situations like this seen in the picture and have to wonder more generally.

Now, I want to concentrate on the economic value since that is the easier to quantify, but then I’ll look at other aspects of university/college-level education.

So studies over the years have asked the question over the years, and on the point of the bonus in how much you earn from a college degree is very positive. No matter your race or gender, having a BA or higher will double your lifetime income than if you had only a high school degree. If you figure you have to pay $100,000 into the system to get your education after considering loans, interest, inflation, lost time in the work force, etc., you will earn that back from getting a job with a BA or better.

However, there are trends that I think may make this picture a bit less certain. Continue reading

Hey, VOTE!

It’s Election Day here in the USA, and if you can you should be voting today or have already voted (I mailed my ballot in weeks ago). You may not vote as I do, but you still ought to vote. The more people involved in the democratic process, the more likely the government will reflect the will of the people. Even if that means you vote for a third party, though strategically it may be unwise (but I do wish the US had a viable multi-party system as other democracies have, not helped by our election process).

So vote. Please. I have my preferences of who or what you choose, but please do it.