Sunday, February 14, 2010

Agnostic Christianity?

"I can't say for certain whether the main postulates of the Christian faith are true. Even though many people try prove them true using logic or empirical evidence, I find such 'proofs' to be severely inadequate and unconvincing. I recognize that my 'personal experience' is insufficient to 'prove' them true to anyone, and that such experience is not at all unique to my faith tradition. In all honesty, I think that a position of uncertainty is probably the most reasonable position a person could take in a discussion of religion, but I personally still think Christianity is closer to truth than other faith traditions...for what it's worth."

OK, so these words aren't actually a quote, but they're a quote I wish I could say I've read from a Christian author, heard from a Christian authority figure, heard preached from a Christian pulpit, or even heard Christians say to me in private. This seems like a perfectly civil way to approach religious difference and the question of uncertainty and doubt. But in my experience, I have rarely, if ever, heard a 'believer' say anything approximating this declaration. In fact, I've often heard quite the opposite, that if one does not declare with certainty, condemn doubt, and experience the divine first hand, then that person has no business calling themselves a 'Christian'. It's entirely possible that this is due to my own personal limited experience and exposure to Christianity in an Evangelical North American setting, but history seems to suggest that this sort of posturing is not unique to Evangelicals (or Christians for that matter!).

My thinking for some time has been that uncertainty is OK, and probably the most intellectually honest position a person could take with themselves and others. Sure, there are practical aspects of 'the gospel' that are easy to buy into (i.e., caring for society's 'least', loving your enemies), but believing that Jesus is God, that he was born of a virgin, or that he was raised from the dead are not at all necessary for those practical aspects to appeal to socially minded humans or to be applied and have functional value in society. I've heard believers and unbelievers alike argue that those practical aspects would not even exist if it were not for Jesus' declarations, and that without belief in Jesus' divinity, they carry no authority. But, even if these are ideas that originated with Jesus (a suggestion that I can accept as potentially true, but probably is not true) they can still be acted upon whether Jesus is divine or not. And, as far as whether anyone would take these suggestions seriously unless Jesus is divine, well, I find that suggestion suspect, since I haven't observed any correlation between 'belief' or 'disbelief' in Jesus' divinity and concern for the 'least' fact, quite frequently I've observed what appears to be a complete disregard or even contempt for the 'least' coming from Christians and I've seen 'unbelievers' demonstrate the sort of compassion that I believe Jesus was talking about.

Last year I came across this brief article about T.H. Huxley (AKA 'Darwin's bulldog) and his conception of 'agnosticism'. It discusses his understanding of agnosticism to not be some middling position of indecision, but an assertion that he didn't think we could know some things with certainty...namely whether there was a God, but also that there was no God either. While he tended to think that there was no God, he made no bones about the fact that he was not 'certain' about that thought, thus the article refers to him as the 'agnostic atheist'. While I have no idea about the historical accuracy of this depiction of Huxley's position, it does sound like a reasonable position (for both atheists and believers). And, with that, I'd like to suggest a new category of Christian, the 'agnostic Christian' to refer to a person who hopes some aspects of Christianity are true (i.e., there is a God, he loves us, he intervenes on our behalf even if we don't understand it) or tends to live according to Christian principles (i.e., care for the least, love one's enemies) as a result of this hope, but is entirely comfortable with expressing the uncertainty that is inherent when speaking about things that can not be 'proven' and is perfectly OK with that uncertainty.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Post Baby Reboot

I've neglected my aspirations to contribute to my own blog for the past several months...left hanging the promise of posts regarding the US health care reform debate. At the time, I was all set to write some posts about the state of the health care debate in the US, then came Roan...and graduate course work...but mostly Roan. Needless to say, a lot has happened in the landscape of the healthcare debate, those who insist that the government is up to something sinister have proven resistant to discussions of scientific outcomes, the proposals have undergone a variety of modifications and permutations as they progress in the US legislative system. I do support reform, I wish it went further, but I'm still generally satisfied with the proposals going forward. I've tired of going round in circles discussing with people who insist that the Democrats, Obama, or 'Liberals' want to kill people. I've decided my energy is better spent elsewhere, and my words are better spent on topics that interest me more. I will continue, from time to time, to offer commentary on US (or other countries) healthcare, just right now, the 'discussion' has grown stale and uninteresting. We'll see what the US ultimately gets, if anything of substance can be passed, but in the meantime, I lack the interest, or time, to address every imagined 'concern' of teabaggers who will simply deny reality in their unremitting attempts to gain political points.

I am hoping that over the next month or so, during the between semester break, and over the holidays, that I'll find more time to write here.

Friday, August 7, 2009

US Health Care 2009 - Introduction

The topic of health care reform has become the political discussion in the US this summer, with President Obama originally hoping to pass health care reform legislation this summer, and now pushing to have something done to improve the state of US health care by the end of the year. This is a topic that interests me greatly, for a variety of professional and personal reasons. During my career thus far, I've worked closely with doctors, medical students, and health care researchers conducting various types of research examining the delivery of health care services in the US. But, this is also a subject that I find deep personal interest in, and is one of the foundational political issues that I consider when thinking about and discussing US politics.

As a Canadian living in the US, this is a subject that I've been forced to confront since I enrolled at Evangel University back in 1995. At that time, my colleagues would ask me what I thought about Canada's 'socialized' medicine, as if it were a system that ought to be in question as a legitimate form of paying for health care and providing coverage for the whole population. A question that would have never occurred to me had I never come to the US for school, but a question that I've enjoyed thinking and conversing about ever since.

If you were to believe many of the commentators in the US, you might think that I was raised in a totalitarian state with no 'freedoms', little opportunity for self determination or economic advancement, and that I was surrounded by suffering due to the ineptitude of government involvement in 'so many' of my day to day activities. Of course, this is not at all an accurate depiction of my experience, my family's continued experience, or the experiences of Canadians in general, but it seems to gain traction in the US because of it's frequent repetition and the availability of a few cases where the system has come up wanting.

Given the dissonance between my perception of the experiences of Canadians, and the caricature depicted by so many commentators in the US, health care became an issue that I've pursued as much information on as possible so that I could honestly understand the reality and avoid the ideological colourings that so often obscure the truth rather than provide clarity in political discourse. I've spent much of my adult life considering and comparing Canadian and US health care, alongside other systems around the world in order to determine what works and what the best way to achieve a workable solution (if indeed there is a problem).

Lately, I've found myself involved in a variety of online debates and discussions about the topic of health care in the US, and how health care reform might best be achieved. In the process, I've found myself repeating the same points over and over, sometimes even with the same discourse partners. I've decided, with the encouragement of my friend Angie, that I'll write a series of posts over the next few weeks outlining and dissecting many of the points of contention seen in the US health care debate. While I can't claim to be entirely unbiased in what I think is the 'right' thing to do, I will claim to present arguments that can be backed up with data, and despite my ideological bent I am first and foremost a pragmatist who would much rather see something work than to promote a pure implementation of my ideals. Despite my limited (or non-existent) readership, I welcome any comments to these posts, but I'll enjoy the exercise with or without comments.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Blink is Malcolm Gladwell's second book, but the first that I've read. As a book for popular audiences, it provides an enjoyable look into the psychology of intuitive judgments. Using examples ranging from experts intuitions about a 'fake' 6th century BC Kouros statue, to judgments about the suitability of dating partners, to snap judgments we make about political candidates, to procedural safeguards that are in place to guard against police 'abuse' during heated, and adrenaline producing, moments.

The take away message being that under the right circumstances, humans are pretty good intuitive judges, even if we can't exactly 'nail down' the reasoning behind our judgments until much later. Indeed, this intuitive cognitive system (sometimes referred to as automatic processing) appears to have evolved as a mechanism that enabled us to make rapid judgments about stimuli that could have life or death consequences. However, from time to time this intuitive system sometimes leads to errors, and, on occasion, those errors can be fatal and tragic. The key to all of this is that one needs to learn when to trust his or her intuitions, and when not to trust them.

For each example that Gladwell discusses, he discusses a somewhat disappointingly small amount of the vast scientific evidence that is pertinent to each of his main topics (and this body of literature is large). The main shortcoming I found in this book is that I would have liked to hear about more scientific research that could move his examples from the realm of simple anecdote to a generalizable phenomenon that all people tend to rely on.

Overall, this book presents an enjoyable entry into some of the issues dealt with by Judgment and Decision Making psychology or Behavioral Economics. However, I think there are a number of extremely well written (and recent) books in this area for popular audiences (some suggestions below) that focus more on the actual research and provide a greater breadth of important ideas than Blink does. While Blink is a wonderful introduction, I think it only scratches the surface of a field of research that offers a great deal of insight into human cognition and behavior.

Some additional reading that I highly recommend:

Friday, January 30, 2009

Book: The Devil in Dover by Lauri Lebo

As education reporter for the York Daily record in 2005, Lauri Lebo reported on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District 'Intelligent Design' (ID) trial in Dover, PA. The Devil in Dover is her personal account of the events that unfolded in this small American town. While the story of this trial and the judge's ruling against the inclusion of ID as part of the high school science curriculum is well known, Lebo adds her unique perspective to the corpus of excellent books aobut this trial. Lebo's telling of the story is concise yet takes on the feel of a gripping courtroom drama set in rural America. As a concerned citizen, Lebo depicts her astonishment at willingness of the born-again school board members to utter falshoods while under oath in order to promote the inclusion of ID in the Dover science curriculum. As a touchpoint for the events unfolding in the court room, is her ongoing estranged relationship with her fundamentalist Christian father who insists that those promoting ID were obviously the 'good guys', despite their blatant lying. Lebo delves a little bit into the scientific arguments, but spends most of the book focused on the human side of this story, exploring how this episode affected the community, the individuals who brought the suit against the school board, and the board members themselves. It is in her exploration of the personal fallout that Lebo truly demonstrates her unique voice.