Social Media is a Cancer

I heard possibly the most apropos description of the role social media plays when it comes to shaping public dialogue and understanding for the negative: political leaders and other individuals knowingly perpetuating conspiracy theories and speaking outright lies without anything being done about it. Section 230 of the Decency Act prevents social media companies from being held accountable for being a pulpit for pseudoscience and harmful propaganda. This is a good thing, in principle, because rarely does censorship end well; but in the reality zero-accountability is destroying the public’s capacity to make informed decisions.

This reminds of the situation back in the 1950s when corporations were dumping mercury into lakes and rivers with abandon because it was more profitable and easier to just dump it than recycle it (it only later became illegal when the harm to public health became apparent); and so Facebook (which is probably the worst of these corporate polluters) sits behind Section 230 and is an enabler of the transmission of information which hurts the public understanding of science (e.g. climate change denialism and anti-vaccination propaganda), politics (e.g. Russian trolls and “pizzagate”), justice (e.g. Trump deflecting criticism from himself on to “Psycho Joe Scarborough” by Tweeting long debunked falsehoods about a so-called cold case), ethnic groups (e.g. Myanmar used it encourage and maintain the genocide of the Rohingya) and so on.

I’m 48. I’m not ancient, but I’m not young. Something feels tangibly different today than it did when I was younger and I think it has everything to do with how we use and how much we consume social media: we are less tolerant of diversity; we are less tolerant of disagreement (considering it destructive to friendship as opposed to just a reflection of that aforementioned diversity); there’s a belief that an uninformed personal opinion on any given topic is equivalent in trustworthiness to the expert on that given topic; there’s way too much tolerance on the right for a lack of fundamental decency where people veil their intolerance behind attacks on political correctness; and there’s too much of a demand on the left for cultural and political purity that to disagree with them you get branded as a racist for even thinking of dissenting.

Belief in an Age of Doubt

Art imitates life compelling us to look deeper in to the significance and meaning of human experience.  For this reason Roger Lundin, author of Believing Again, felt studying literature was vital to our well-being—books weave experience and sensation together giving expression to certain underlying truths about human existence. When Lundin was thirteen years old he read Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire.” After finishing the story he felt like his life was taken away momentarily—measured and judged—and then returned to him in the form of an alienated majesty (a realization his own situation, and that of the main character in London’s story, was essentially identical.)

“To Build a Fire” is a story about a man lost in the Yukon wilderness. He must build a fire or perish. Everything that can go wrong goes wrong. When the nameless man’s efforts eventually fail, he submits to fate by falling asleep and slipping into death. London’s story of a hapless man freezing to death made perfect sense to a young impressionable Lundin: life was not directed by any divine being towards some sort of greater purpose; on the contrary, life appeared governed by purposeless accident and blind necessity. Things, sometimes terrible things, simply happened to people for no particular purpose or reason. The death of his older brother, in Lundin’s grade ten year, during routine surgery reinforced this sense of life’s purposelessness. To Lundin everything was either random or the workings of a God so distant and indifferent the thought of submitting to it was unbearable. So for the final two years of high school, he poured himself into reading books; and the poets and novelists he encountered during this time placed him on a path towards eventually returning to God.

In his book Believing Again, Roger Lundin describes his personal journey from unbelief to belief. He traces his journey using the thoughts and paths followed by various 19th century writers. Writers like Emily Dickinson, Herman Melville, and Fyodor Dostoevsky provide a fruitful context for a discussion on the origin and consequences of doubt for people living in the 21st century.

A Changing Zeitgeist

Lundin takes the beginning of the 19th century as his starting point: the Enlightenment was in full swing. People were buoyed by a sense of hope and optimism about the future. They believed reason, and education in particular, was the solution to all of humanity’s problems. There was a scientific renaissance in fields like geology, biology, chemistry and physics successfully challenging old assumptions about the physical world (and God). Emerging sciences like sociology and psychology added further fuel to the fire challenging traditional beliefs and religious claims about the world in particular. The increase in scientific knowledge contributed to the development of a new more modern Zeitgeist.[1] Where once we thought ourselves special, advances in biology (e.g. theory of evolution) indicated we were not; where once it was believed the Earth was only thousands of years old advances in geology pointed to the planet actually being hundreds of millions of years old. More than one person asked themselves questions like why did God create the dinosaurs and why did He take so long to get to us? In a sense science knocked humankind off of its pedestal. By the end of the 19th century people were filled less with optimism and more with a sense of feeling adrift.[2]

The scientific process cannot really be blamed for causing this cultural shift; rather, it was the perceived implications of scientific findings causing people to question the existence of a divine order or purpose to things. Many of the major cultural figures of the 19th century, like Emily Dickinson and Fyodor Dostoevsky, wrote their most important works during this period. Both writers felt they were living during a time of challenge and bracing change; and although doubt had always co-existed alongside faith, it was during the 1800s open unbelief first became an intellectually viable and, perhaps most importantly, a socially acceptable option. In the 21st century, we have learned to live with unbelief. Yet, when modern unbelief first broke upon the scene in the mid-nineteenth century, the sense of disruption and disorientation it caused, was palpable, even overwhelming for some; and by the end of the 19th century doubt went from being an isolated experience on the cultural margins to becoming a central component of modern life.

Changing Zeitgeist: Changing Expectations

Up until the middle of the 19th century young people were expected to adopt the same values and worldview as their parents. No questions asked. Today the situation is changed: young people are expected to make their own way through the world; they cannot rely entirely upon traditions, society or their family to guide them. Young people are expected to examine things objectively and not just accept things at face value. People living in the 21st century possess a degree of freedom and individual responsibility inconceivable to our ancestors.

Lundin is a child of the 20th century. He grew up living with significant doubt. At times he entertained the idea some force governed the course of life; however, he had no idea what it was like or whether it even had a name. He clearly did not believe it was a loving, forgiving, or personal power directing history or events from behind the scenes. As a child of the 20th century, Lundin believed the laws of life took no notice of his personal longings or the prayers and destiny of people. Instead, it appeared to him people were simply wandering around life from nowhere to nowhere. The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz aptly describes the situation in his poem “Road to Nowhere”:

If what is proclaimed by Christianity is a fiction,
And what we are taught in schools,
In newspapers and TV is true:
That the evolution of life is an accident,
As is an accident the existence of man,
And that his history goes from nowhere to nowhere,
Our duty is to draw conclusions
From our thinking about the innumerable generations
Who lived and died deluding themselves,
Ready to renounce their natural needs for no reason,
To wait for a posthumous verdict, every day afraid
That for licking clean a pot of jam they go to eternal torment.

Milosz’s reference to the “evolution of life” is an allusion to the work of Charles Darwin. When Darwin developed the theory of evolution he made no use of a God. Instead he explained humankind’s origins solely through material and observable forces. Life took the shape it did, not because of the activity of a loving all-powerful God, but through interspecies struggle and survival of the fittest. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. His “dangerous idea” caused controversy for at least two reasons: firstly, it provided an alternative explanation to the biblical account of humankind’s origins; and secondly, the theory contributed to the emerging 19th century notion that all previous generations of the faithful had merely been, to quote Milosz, “deluding themselves”.

For his part Darwin was never an atheist. Scientists study nature for its own sake (not to disprove religion).[3] Darwin developed the theory of evolution through his work studying barnacles. He wanted to explain why there was such a variety of them. Why caused them to differ so much from one another? He concluded that barnacles took the forms they did due to adapting to new environments through a process he called natural selection, i.e. organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring. In other words, dead barnacles don’t have babies. Competition between the different varieties of barnacles shaped what they looked like. The most important conclusion Darwin reaches was all of varieties of barnacles shared one ancestor population in common. The implications of shared ancestry weren’t lost on him: he looked at the United States with horror because white people justified the continued practice of slavery by an appeal to racial superiority. Darwin concluded correctly that if humankind was evolving, then just like with the barnacles, every human being could trace their ancestry to a single shared ancestral population in the distant past. Later developments in biology confirmed what Darwin suspected: there is no white person or yellow person or black person or red person genome (DNA molecule). There is a single universal human genome.[4]

People living in the 21st century are shaped by both faith-based and scientific perspectives. Consequently, today even “firm” believers appreciate that while religion provides a meaning, science likewise has something to teach us. Therefore, to be a believer today is to recognize that in the deepest personal sense, belief appears to be more or less optional; that is, whatever a person is able to accept and affirm he or she is also free to reject or deny. Faith, therefore, is a choice. By the same line of reasoning unbelief is a choice, as well.

The Adulthood of the World

There is no point in regretting our freedom to choose. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said as much in his Letters and Papers from Prison. Bonhoeffer argued it made no sense for Christians to try and fight the “adulthood of the world”.[5] Specifically, he observed that it was “in the first place pointless, in the second place ignoble, and in the third place un-Christian” to jettison scientific findings if and when they conflicted with established belief.[6] Admittedly, some ideas and certain perspectives make many believers uncomfortable. But being made uncomfortable by a particular idea or line of reasoning isn’t evidence that the idea is false. Such discomfort is more or less an indicator of individual’s ability or inability (unwillingness) to change their thinking to reflect new and better information.

Bonhoeffer asserted if gainsay was our only defense against challenges to belief little was accomplished. Facts are, as President John Adams once observed, stubborn things. So, when an assumption about God is successfully challenged, like the Earth is 4.5 billion years old and not 6000 years like some creationists claim, this does not mean that because we got the Earth’s age wrong we must also be wrong about God even existing. Darwin argued science told us how processes unfold, not why[7] or for what greater purpose they unfold. Look at it this way: people make assumptions about others all the time. Are the assumptions themselves the person whom they’re being made about? Or are they an imperfect reflection of a version of them? God and the assumptions people have about It.[8] are not the same thing. Not even close.[9]

Shortly after Lundin’s conversion to Christianity, he dreamt about how much better his life might have been if he were born during the middle ages. Life was simpler then and the authority of the Church and the Bible were not questioned (actually this authority was challenged but the Church’s ability to kill or imprison opponents is what kept such questioning to a minimum). Yet, Lundin’s view of the medieval period was correct in at least one respect: the Christian narrative then was firmly accepted “as is” without any real challenge from science. Lundin, though, freely admits wishing to be alive at this time is an example of foolish idealism. When he was a child his life was saved twice by modern medicine. If he lived during the middle ages, he would have died twice by the age of ten. Lundin does not cry over our loss of innocence and medieval certainty. Instead, he accepts reality for what it is: something is true not because it is believed in; rather, nothing depends upon a believer at all, e.g. God might exist despite the atheist’s lack of belief and God might not exist despite the theist’s belief. Again, Lundin asserts there is no point in wishing this were not the case. Faith is a choice.[10]

To writers like Emily Dickinson and Czeslaw Milosz , belief and unbelief were real tensions, and like Jacob did with the angel, these authors wrestled with God—and in some cases also with the shadow cast by His apparent absence. To her credit Dickinson perceived the promise and peril of the modern world earlier than most. In the case of Dostoevsky, he knew that the theological ground had shifted dramatically over the course of a single generation from confidence to doubt in God. They found the new dynamics of belief challenging and grew weary pursuing God; though they had strong convictions their self-dividing doubts always remained. Near the end of her life Dickinson observed to a friend that on “subjects of which we know nothing…we both believe, and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps [belief] nimble”.[11] Her observation captures the essence of what it means to believe or not believe in the 21st century—we are as justified in practicing one position as the other.

Poet W. H. Auden looked at the influence of science as both admirable and harmful. According to Auden, science liberated men from misplaced humility before a false god. Interestingly, Auden observed the god whose death Friedrich Nietzsche declared in the late 19th century was not the Christian God but a cultural creation or a “Zeus without Zeus’ vices”. To Auden, the singular achievement of science in the modern world was to demythologize the universe; and since God created the universe He could not be directly encountered within it.[12] So we are left partially blind and to our assumptions. In his book The Secular Age, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor explains the situation this way:

Now this change, which has taken place over the last [thousand years] in our civilization, has been immense. We move from an enchanted world, inhabited by spirits and forces, to a disenchanted one; but perhaps more important, we have moved from a world which is encompassed within certain bounds and static to one which is vast, feels infinite, and is in the midst of an evolution spread over [ages].[13]

In 1849 Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested by the czar’s secret police in Russia for criticizing the government’s policies. He and several others were condemned to death; at the last moment, a note from Czar Nicholas I was delivered to the firing squad. The czar spared the writer commuting his sentence to four years’ hard labor in Siberia. A woman named Natalya Fonvizina gave Dostoevsky a copy of the New Testament just before his four-year exile began. Dostoevsky wrote Natalya a letter while in prison. The contents of the letter place the Russian author squarely at the center of the 19th century discovery of unbelief and the subsequent efforts to believe again:

I will tell you that I am a child of the century, a child of disbelief and doubt, I am that today and (I know it) will remain so until the grave. How much terrible torture this thirst for faith has cost me and costs me even now, which is all the stronger in my soul the more arguments I can find against it. And yet, God sends me sometimes instants when I am completely calm; at those instants I love and I feel loved by others, and it is at these instants that I have shaped for myself a Credo where everything is clear and sacred for me. This Credo is very simple, here it is: to believe that nothing is more beautiful, profound, sympathetic, reasonable, manly, and more perfect than Christ; and I tell myself with a jealous love not only that there is nothing but that there cannot be anything. Even more, if someone proved to me that Christ is outside the truth, and that in reality the truth were outside of Christ, then I should prefer to remain with Christ rather than with the truth.[14]

There exists no more passionate statement of faith than what is found in Dostoevsky’s letter. Human beings are as much a product of reason as they are of passion. If people are genuinely thoughtful, and value intellectual humility and honesty, they cannot ever entirely escape some degree of doubt. But then I remember one simple thing I learned as a young boy reading scripture for myself: Jesus never told me I had to have the right ideas (assumptions) in my head. He didn’t tell me faith consisted in having the right understanding; he told me I was literally born to do good. Maybe the question of God’s existence is not so important after all (since it cannot really be answered scientifically). Perhaps faith then is best understood not as a series of logical propositions or doctrines, but more of a conscious decision to persist and choose to love the good and live in hope and trust.


[1] Zeitgeist is taken from the German literally meaning “spirit of the time”. The zeitgeist is the “defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time”.

[2] In the 1930s, sociologist Émile Durkheim described this popular sense of feeling adrift through the concept of anomie. Anomie, in societies or individuals, is a condition of instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values or from a lack of purpose or ideals. Scientific advances successfully challenging religious claims contributed to a collective sense of rootlessness and despair. Science, or knowledge itself, was not to blame per se; rather, the problem was with how intractable and unbending people were in their thinking: instead of adapting to the new information by adjusting old beliefs to reflect new scientific information, many abandoned religion altogether.

[3] Darwin actually completed significant education and training towards becoming an Anglican priest.

[4] By the end of his life Darwin was an agnostic: he accepted the fact some questions were simply unanswerable by their nature. He never said at any point evolution disproved God’s existence. Darwin observed scientific theories merely describe how a process unfolds; scientific theories, however, do not answer the question why the observed process existed in the first place (or if someone as opposed to something was responsible); thus, unlike some opponents of religion claim, evolution never unseated or “killed” God; it is possible God used evolution as a means of creating and shaping life. Nonetheless, it is accurate to say evolution certainly challenged certain assumptions people had about God.

[5] Bonhoeffer used “adulthood” as a metaphor referring to the advances made in science and the subsequent leaving behind of certain beliefs.

[6] Bonhoeffer, D. (2017). Letters and papers from prison. London: SCM Press, p.327.

[7] The words how and why are actually quite similar in their meaning, e.g. they both ask the question in what way or manner did something come to be. However, I am using the adverb why to refer to something related to Providence or the work of an unseen God. So why is being used here as a synonym for “underlying reason” or “overarching purpose”, e.g. Why was X made? So that Y would happen.

[8] It is not even clear that God is a He or a Him in the strictest human sense of the word. Some theologians and anthropologists argue that if we live in a patriarchal society it’s more likely we’ll explain God in masculine as opposed to feminine terms.

[9] Every ancient society believed gods directly influenced human history. Judaism was unique, in that, it was the first religion to posit the idea there was only one God, not many gods, at work in the world. Christians believe God worked through Israel to prepare a foundation for the birth of Jesus; and God used Jesus to show us His parental heart: God is a parent—in every sense of the word—who looks after us. He is not necessarily an indifferent cosmic power as some critics claim.

[10] When it comes right down to it faith is a choice. Faith is not a collection of ideas. Faith is a state of being, not a series of “correct” propositions the believer is obligated to memorize and apply to their life formulaically. Appealing directly to St. Paul, faith has less to do with fide (literally “belief” from the Latin) in series of ideas or doctrines and more to do with a persistent state of pistus (literally “trusting” from the Greek) in God, anways. Faith, therefore, is a choice between trust and doubt.

[11] (n.d.). Retrieved May 14, 2020, from

[12] Auden elaborated on this position through the following analogy, e.g. Just as when I read a poem, I do not encounter the author himself, only the words he has written whit it is my job to understand”. Kirsch, A. C. (2005). Auden and Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, p.162.

[13] Taylor, C. (2018). A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, p.323.

[14] Frank, J. (2002) Dostoevsky: Years. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, p.160.

Imperial Irony

Watching my cat look out the window and this random thought pops in my head: former 19th century empires–France, Germany and England for example–are the friendliest states in Europe to the idea of multiculturalism.

There are, of course, people in these countries who fear diversity; however, the majority of their populations are cosmopolitan in their outlook. Interestingly, Hungary and Poland–both countries occupied by outsiders throughout the 19th century–are the most resistant to immigration and the most cloistered.

So, in something of an ironic twist, we have the countries which robbed the identity of nations 150 years ago now embracing those identities; and those states that had their identities robbed are the most reluctant to embrace diversity. There appears to be a correlation, however strong or weak, between an imperial past and a multicultural present.

A Dostoevsky Inspired Thought…

Human life is not some sort of collective movement from a backward past to a better future. This fiction thrust upon the Western world by well-meaning, but overly optimistic philosophers, has been used to justify engineering societies for the sake of the illusion of progress at the expense of real people. The Age of Reason may have given us modernity; yet, it seems modernity is failing us. Opinions are successfully replacing facts. Dogmatism, or fervency of belief, is mistaken for genuine conviction. We’re giving up on terrible freedom, exchanging it for a collection of pleasing cages called social media, smart phones, political correctness and Internet echo chambers.

And so, every person stands in each moment on the edge of an eternity confronted by decisions: to move either forwards or backwards; to progress or stay the same; to side with the tribe just for the sake of doing so or embrace uncertainty leaving behind a family of superstition and ignorance; to submit to an artificial past because of its superficial gravity; or to mistake ignorance for truth, tradition for certainty, and habit for wisdom.

So, what’s the point a Russian asks me? There is none and never was I reply.

The Relationship between Science and Skepticism

Greek culture produced hundreds of often contradictory philosophies and worldviews. The sheer number of ideas  made thinkers like Socrates wonder if any of it could be trusted. One philosopher would argue the world was made entirely from water, one from air, and still another from fire. Thinkers did not just disagree about the material making up the world; they also disagreed on topics like justice, the ideal society, the role of the gods, love, art, and of course life’s meaning.

There was a tendency in these early Greek thinkers to emphasize the importance of conclusions as opposed to questions. If you start at the conclusion, you risk ending up creating the impression that the object of the question is real as opposed to provisional. Thus, when a theist asks a question (e.g. What are souls made of?) the question’s structure implies the object (souls) isn’t something conjectured but something capable of being studied. To put it more generally literally every metaphysical question implies a unearned degree of certainty in the question’s object, e.g. What made God? Is the soul indestructible? What do angels do to protect us? And so on. The reality is, well, reality doesn’t work this way; that being, opinions can exist on “things” that do not. The sheer existence of an opinion, or asking a question about some metaphysical “thing”, is not proof of that thing’s existence.

For this reason a new type of thinker called a skeptic emerged emphasizing the importance of asking questions and possessing a questioning attitude. Skepticism is a powerful tool of discernment and understanding: genuine skeptics do not go into studying a problem thinking they already have all the answers. Instead, they are humble and keenly aware of how hard it is ascertain the truth. For example, the Greek poet Hesiod asserted things like crops failed or disease broke out because it was the will of the gods. However, skeptics like Thales of Miletus  rejected supernatural explanations in favor of a more rational materialist approach. He argued droughts weren’t the will of the gods; they were the product of a series of natural forces which were outside of humankind’s capacity to control.

When practicing science we are not interested in who created the world (as theists like Hesiod or St. Paul did) but what the universe is made of; scientists are not interested in the presumed purpose of a thing but how that thing came into existence or how that thing operates. Scientists explain the world by appealing to forces like gravity, friction, heat, momentum, etc. and not by invoking the will of the gods. The change of emphasis—moving from who (gods) to what (matter)—contributed to the eventual emergence of skepticism in the Greek world. Socrates, one of history’s more noteworthy skeptics, argued it made no sense to try to have knowledge about the gods when one did not first understand oneself. He claimed the gods, if they even existed, were fundamentally unknowable. Therefore, it was justifiable to have not only doubts about the existence of the gods but also their alleged activity on the earth. The physical world, on the other hand, since it was right in front it was there to be examined and could be induced (encouraged in a sense) through tests to give up its secrets.

Skepticism is at root an intellectual position: we possess a questioning attitude; we do not believe absolute certainty is possible (but neither are we fatalistic believing that since we do not know everything we do not know anything (an accusation leveled at the noted skeptic Pyrrho of Elis); skeptics use a combination of reason, critical thinking and practice systematic doubt to explore problems. Systematic doubt is a process where the skeptic asks questions and tests claims systematically: if a belief or claim cannot stand on its own merits, or stand up to systematic study (be proven true or false through the scientific method), then that belief or claim is considered untrustworthy and potentially abandoned. This does not mean skeptics do not believe in anything. On the contrary, skeptics believe in all sorts of things; however, what they choose to assent to reflects humanity’s intellectual limitations as imposed by the experiences they have and do not have. The skeptic acknowledges that all knowledge at some level is uncertain (even our best tested and proven scientific theories are regarded as provisional at some level).

Skepticism made its first appearance in the rationalism of the ancient Greeks. The Greeks developed elaborate philosophical systems and ideas around topics like religion and branches of philosophy like metaphysics. Metaphysics is a branch of philosophy concerned with answering questions about the fundamental nature of reality. In other words, Metaphysics deals with abstract topics like:

  • Can something exist outside of space and time?
  • Is time real or an illusion?
  • What are the laws of Nature?
  • What is causation?
  • Do humans possess free will?
  • Is there any meaning to life?

There are two fundamental drawbacks, at least as I see it, with metaphysics: firstly, the big questions asked are not falsifiable; secondly, metaphysics focuses on asking questions fundamentally about thought or the way people think (and since different people value or emphasize different things, experiences, etc. differently this becomes a problematic process because there’s no shared standard to which we can appeal); and finally, the answers we conjure up through metaphysics can lead us to hasty, ill-considered conclusions which is an inherent risk of relying on deduction alone. Thus, neither Aristotle (with some noted exceptions related to biology referenced in his work Physics) nor Plato conducted a single experiment to prove any of their theories. They used pure reason or logic to develop their theories and supporting ideas. This of course did not prevent them from developing theories about the world. For example Plato developed his theory of forms through pure reason, pure deduction, where he argued ideas were literally more real than the things in the physical world to which they corresponded.

If skeptics, and scientists, did not question assumptions made about the world conjured up by thinkers like Plato, or promoted by creationist think tanks like the Discovery Institute, we would still believe sickness was caused by demons; the earth was the center of the universe, flat, and immovable; comets were signs of divine displeasure; human blood sacrifice ensured better harvests; our futures were dictated by the random placement of the stars and planets; and heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. When it comes right down to it, scientific skeptics place a great deal of stock in intellectual honesty and integrity refusing to purposely delude others or be deluded themselves.

A Debate on the Nature of Belief

A Debate on the Nature of Belief 
The medieval philosopher Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 AD) argued faith in something was evidence for the existence of the thing believed in. Anselm was a scholastic philosopher who didn’t worry about whether or not the argument was logical so much as it supported established wisdom (Church doctrine).. Once such doctrine was put forward by the Apostle Paul when he remarked in Hebrews 11: 1 that faith was “evidence in things not seen.” There is a fatal flaw affecting Anselm’s approach though: simply believing something exists does not make that thing exist any more than disbelieving in the existence of a thing makes that thing cease to exist.

Being a scholastic philosopher Anselm was not worried about anything other than preserving the Church’s authority and maintaining respect for Church teaching; therefore, he explained away the above contradiction by constructing the following supporting argument (which eventually came to be known as the Ontological Argument), e.g. we would not even have an idea or concept of “God” in our mind in the first place if this Being did not exist.

William of Ockham’s Reponse to the Ontological Argument
A century and a half after Anselm, the monk and philosopher William of Ockham (1287-1347 CE) refuted the Ontological Argument (also known as the “argument from necessity”).

First off, it should be noted William of Ockham (1079-1142 CE) was not an atheist. He shared a lot in common with the famed medieval thinker Peter Abelard: a person should not place unqualified faith in the power of belief but test claims and go wherever the evidence takes you. truth (not faith or belief). William also appreciated Thales of Miletus’ (624-546 BCE) approach to learning about the world. Thales was an ancient Greek philosopher who, unlike Anselm, did not just employ reason alone, but actually conducted experiments to test whether his ideas had merit. There was a tendency in Thales’ time to invoke the  gods to explain the mysteries of the physical world. Thales did not invoke the gods. Instead he looked for material and logically consistent explanations for why things worked the way they did.

When it came to disproving Anselm’s Ontological Argument, William used a combination of logic and an appeal to experience. In the great scheme of things, the existence of God simply is not falsifiable. William therefore addressed whether or not Anselm’s argument was logically supportable by testing its plausibility.

William put forth the following counter-argument, i.e. if faith was evidence for the existence of things unseen then faith in the existence of, say, unicorns would likewise be proof of the existence of a one-horned white horse. Ockham pointed out that while faith in God supported the idea of God, it did not support the reality of God’s existence. In other words, it would be absurd to conclude that the simple idea of a unicorn was proof for a unicorn’s existence. We can quite literally conceive of a million different “things” that exist in mind only but do not exist “out there.”

Therefore, to be consistent William rejected the idea that belief in God was evidence of anything; he asserted with equal vigor that believing God did not exist also did not cause God to cease to exist. In the end, God did not depend upon a person’s belief to exist at all. Further still, God could not be postulated out of existence by simply disbelieving in Him. His existence was entirely independent of a person’s belief or lack thereof. Logically, this led William to the following conclusion: God, you, your friend, that cat over there, even that chair, etc. all exist despite of our belief and not because of it.

Yet, for William to successfully refute Anselm he had to tackle Anselm’s supporting idea, e.g. How would the idea or concept of God enter the human mind if it did not already exist in reality?

William used the following two arguments to place the ontological argument in to doubt: firstly, there is a difference between a concept and a thing. For example, an actual thing like a white horse or a single-horned goat do exist in reality. This is an indisputable fact. But there is no such thing as a horse, as defined, that has a horn.

Let’s look at another example: while short Irishmen most certainly exist, it is doubtful that if you chased one down they’d necessarily give you a pot of gold (as per a leprechaun). Yet, the concept of a leprechaun exists. But this concept is just a variation and recombination of things that do exist, e.g. pots, gold, Irish people, short people. The reason the concept–leprechauns, unicorns or God–is a lack of critical discernment on the part of the believer. We literally believe in the power of belief (and frequently do not know what we do not know).

The same logic applies to the existence of any mythological creature. Actually, every single mythological creature—even space aliens—is just a recombination of multiple animals people have first hand experience with; that is, we “copy” and then “paste” the parts of one animal on to another animal to create a new concept. For example in Thale’s time harpy’s and the Chimera were believed to be real. The concept of a harpy most certainly can exist but short of some significant cosmetic surgery a “hawk lady” is simply not possible.

harpy and chimera

In the case of aliens, just think of the way they are represented in film: they’re essentially “little green men” who just look like a weird version of us. They are believed to be uber-intelligent and logically get represented as having extra large heads and eyes. Logically speaking, why would aliens necessarily look like us? The funny thing is on the planet Earth there are stranger looking things than aliens when compared to humans. Consider how different snakes and viper fish are from one another or humans; it stands to reason then that an alien, a being from another planet millions of light years distant, is going to evolve to be at least as different as a viper fish is from a human being (if not more so, e.g. why are both aliens and humans bipedal?).

Producers of alien movies today are an analogue to the scholastics of Anselm’s time: scholastics deal with concepts but not in reality. The philosophy of humanism, which William of Ockham most certainly later influenced, gave people better tools of logical discernment and methods of testing reality.

Secondly, William argued that the creative capabilities of the human mind made people capable of imagining things in to existence that simply did not exist; that being, opinions can exist on things that do not. Therefore, a concept or idea was only evidence of a particular way a person thought about the world; it revealed little about how the actual world operates. So if you believe witches can cast spells then witches cast spells.

Again, a concept is not a “thing” in and of itself; and things do not need us to believe in them to exist. In the end, a concept is just an opinion; and the existence of opinions—or ideas—are not evidence of anything other than the existence of a thought bumping around in a person’s mind; and, again, opinions can exist on things that do not.

William of Ockham was not an atheist. He was a Catholic monk. He also wasn’t even a Renaissance writer and thinker; however, his work anticipated both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution. This is because he was one of the first scholars (in a long line including Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, and eventually, Albert Einstein) who wanted to see the world as it actually was as opposed to how it was believed to be.

The Study of History: The Medieval Model versus the Humanist Model

The enthusiasm people had for the Greeks and Romans during the Renaissance was largely because people started looking at history differently.

The way people think about the past reveals a lot about how they think about themselves. For example, medieval scholars divided history into two periods: an ancient world before the time of Christ (which was a time of darkness) and then the period after his resurrection (regarded as a time of light). We have not thought in these historical terms—times of darkness and light—for a long time. Nonetheless, up until about 1998 CE the majority of scholars still organized time by directly referencing the birth year of Jesus, e.g. Julius Caesar was assassinated om 44 BC (or 44 years before the birth of Jesus) or the Emperor Constantine died in 337 AD (337 years after birth).

In an effort to establish secular (or non-religious calendar), historians now use the acronyms BCE (Before the Common Era) and CE (Common Era) instead of BC and AD. Interestingly, despite the fact Western society has not believed in the medieval view of history for centuries the BC/AD structure is still sometimes used exerting a continued and subtle influence on the way we think about history.[1]

Renaissance-era historians were humanists. Humanists were less preoccupied with religion compared to medieval writers. For this reason humanist historians formed a different model of history. Unlike their medieval counter-parts, Renaissance historians did not divide history into two but three periods:

  • The first age belonged to the ancient Greeks and Romans (it was regarded as a period light characterized by a flowering of culture and progress)
  • The second age, or middle-age, was a time of darkness or a “dark age” (humanists like Petrarch branded it as an age of cultural decadence and barbarism)
  • Humanists represented their own age as a new historical era of a special kind: a renaissance[2]—an age of light after darkness, an awakening after sleep, a rebirth after death

According to the humanist model of history, once Rome disappeared all that was good and beautiful was lost. However, light returned to the West once Petrarch (1304-1374 CE) re-introduced the world to the writings of Virgil and Cicero. Petrarch valued the literature of the Greeks and Romans above any other culture because of their emphasis on reason and logic in the pursuit of knowledge.

Another humanist thinker named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536 CE) re-envisioned the history of religion in humanist terms. He argued that in the early days, the Catholic Church was a “beacon of light” surrounded by a sea of “pagan darkness”; however, the fall of the Roman Empire and flood of barbarians steered the Church from its true path. Erasmus observed the Church became so concerned with preserving its worldly power it forgot its original purpose: to preserve the simple message of Jesus as presented in the Gospels. Erasmus also blamed the Church’s problems on ignorant monks and mind-numbing scholastics (like Thomas Aquinas). He argued the clergy had become ineloquent and fixated with superstitions and medieval scholasticism[3] as opposed to Jesus’ simple message. Erasmus was optimistic though: he believed the rediscovery of Classical Greek and Roman literature meant the Church might possibly return to the simplicity and purity of its past.

Medieval historians believed they were living literally at the end of an age. Humanists, by contrast, felt they were living at the beginning of a new and brilliant period in human history. This filled them with a sense of optimism about the future. So while humanists knew both the Church and society needed reforming, they looked hopefully to a future Golden Age. This would be a time when Roman eloquence and Greek philosophy would be re-established; and this, it was reasoned, would revive a purer form of Christianity. Medieval historians and thinkers by contrast were not optimistic; they looked at the world as broken (full of sin). The world to medieval scholastics was something to be escaped, not celebrated or rediscovered.

The Importance of Analyzing & Criticizing History
If someone wanted to accurately forge (copy) a piece of writing created two hundred years ago they must know enough history to avoid anachronisms.[4] For example, if while reading an account of the Battle of Yorktown (1781 CE) the historian explains the Americans defeated the British by dropping atom bombs you should be skeptical, i.e. the first atom bomb was dropped in 1945 on Imperial Japan. Also, the Thirteen Colonies dropping nukes on England would be anachronistic because the technology (nukes) did not exist in the 18th century.

Humanists valued historical accuracy. For this reason they developed methods to test a document’s reliability. For example, who would be more of an authority on Christianity—the Apostle Paul who actually lived in the First Century or Pope Leo X (a pope living in the 16th century CE)? The humanist historian would argue Paul is the greater authority: Paul was closer in time to Jesus than Leo X; therefore, Paul was positioned better both historically and intellectually to discuss events related to Jesus’ time and thought. Lorenzo Valla (1406-1457 CE) used newly developed investigative techniques to prove that the Donation of Constantine was a forgery. The Catholic Church argued they received a “donation” in the 4th century from Emperor Constantine giving them control of vast parts of Italy. Valla looked at the language of the Donation document discerning it had actually been written in the 8th century, not the 4th. He pointed out that the word “fief” occurred in the document but this word was first used in the 8th century. Thus, there was no way Constantine—a person living in the pre-feudal 4th century—could have given Italy as a “fief” to the Catholic Church.

Erasmus applied similar critical techniques to studying the Bible. He translated the New Testament from Latin into Dutch and published it in 1516 CE. In his translation, he left out the following verse (commonly referred to as the Comma Johanneum) from the First Epistle of John that is the scriptural basis for belief in the existence of the Trinity. The text of 1 John 5:7-8 reads as follows:

And there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood, and these three agree in one.

Erasmus, like Valla, proved the first verse was not authentic. In particular, he found the reference to “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost” was absent in all of the oldest available Greek editions of John’s epistle (letter); the verse was also absent in all the oldest available Latin manuscripts. Lastly, upon investigation he discovered that this verse was entirely unknown to any Christian writer before the Fourth Century CE (300s).

Erasmus argued, by appealing to the available evidence, that if the verse had existed, it certainly would have been quoted by writers at a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was the center of a theological controversy. The controversy about the Trinity actually threatened to tear the early Church part. The majority of Christians did not believe in the Trinity. Instead, most Christians—called Arians—believed in the idea of dualism, e.g. Jesus was the adopted not actual son of God. The Arians argued that the Holy Spirit was not a distinct person; it was just a quality Jesus and God shared in common. So, Erasmus reasoned, those who supported the idea of the Trinity would certainly have appealed to 1 John 5: 7-8 as evidence to disprove the Arian view. But they did not. They could not. They could not because John’s verse did not exist (yet). The controversy over the nature of God was eventually resolved in favor of the Trinity at the Council of Nicaea (325 CE). Erasmus concluded that the Catholic Church must have added the verse after the council ended to give scriptural authority to the doctrine of the Trinity.[5]

Textual criticism of this kind represents a more scientific approach to understanding history that emerged specifically during the Renaissance. Scholastics would have found a way to explain away the change to Epistle of John. Erasmus being a humanist believed truth was more important than appearances. Nonetheless, Renaissance-era historians were far from perfect: they tended to write in a flowery style sometimes sacrificing accuracy to elegance; they looked at history differently than we do; that is, they looked at it as a branch of literature (not its own branch of knowledge). Nonetheless, advances made by humanist historians helped secularize[6] historical writing and thinking. People still saw God at work in history; but they no longer automatically reverted to discussing God in order to make sense of events.

Renaissance historians were more secular in their outlook and conception of history compared to medieval thinkers. Medieval historians were convinced the course of history was simply the fulfilling of scripture, e.g. a savior was promised, a savior was born, and the world was saved. History demonstrated God’s dominion over humanity. In the humanist view history was a guide to life. You could learn from the past and apply those lessons to the present and the future. The study of history, according to the humanists, should inspire one to act virtuously while discouraging living a life of vice; history trains future statesmen in politics and war; it is the mother of experience and the grandmother of wisdom. Old men are said to be wise because their judgement rests on the accumulated experience of a lifetime; therefore, a right reading of history makes people wise. Thus, the new humanistic history emerging during the Renaissance was a secular description of the past; it focused on worldly matters, not God. The causes of events were not explained in terms of God’s will. Causes and motives were explained solely in human terms. The humanist approach remained the preferred model of historians well into even the 20th century.

Source: this article was created in part using Eugene F. Rice’s book The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559 (pages 79-83).

[1] The modern world continues to make use of all sorts of primitive or medieval notions. For example, the ancient Greeks believed the white cloudy substance in the night sky was the milk of the goddess Hera. We still call our galaxy the “Milky Way” but no one believes Hera exists any longer. Also, we still use terms like “sun set” and sun rise” which reflects an ancient belief in a flat earth. In reality the sun neither sets nor rises; rather, the earth spins revealing the sun during the day and concealing it during the night.

[2] The term “Renaissance” was first prominently used by the French historian Jules Michelet in 1858, and it was set in bronze two years later by Jacob Burckhardt when he published his influential work The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

[3] Scholasticism was represented by a school of thinkers who believed in the importance of preserving the power and influence of the Catholic Church above all else. For this reason they stressed the importance of making all human knowledge conform and agree with Church teachings and a literal reading of scripture. The problem with scholastics is they did not pursue knowledge for its own sake; instead, they were more concerned with preserving the appearance of the Church being the unquestioned leader and authority on science, on politics, economics, the law, and religion.

[4] An anachronism is a thing belonging to or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, e.g. Romans did not have smart phones; therefore, if you were to read a “historical” account of Julius Caesar texting his friends on his smart phone this would be an example of an anachronism.

[5] Various editions of scripture have been changed or altered for different reasons. Martin Luther, for example, disliked the Epistle of James because it stressed the value of completing good works to “earn” salvation. Thus, Luther left James out of his German translation of Erasmus’ translation.

[6] Secularize: to separate from religious or spiritual connection or influences.

Mitch McConnell, the Bill Buckner of Politics, Drops Ball Again

Mitch McConnell just responded to Trump’s latest racist tweets. Here’s what McConnell said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men [and women of conscience] to do [or say] nothing.”

Well done, good sir! So glad to hear human decency at least isn’t negotiable….oh wait…he didn’t say that. He actually refused to comment.

When is the breaking point, do you figure, when people stop giving such unqualified support to the President? You’re supposed to be loyal to the Constitution (not a Person). It’s okay to be critical of the government (even the administration you voted for…in fact…you’re kind of expected to do this to keep the whole democratic experiment and rule of law functioning as intended).

Technology is Perplexing

Perplexing. Technology shrinks the globe and enables “democratic” movements like the Arab Spring. But does it also shrink the world and enable governments or oligarchies to control the denizens of the globe that much easier…?

Love Wins

The following is the commencement address I gave for the graduation ceremony at the school I teach at. I wanted to share it with everyone because I believe firmly in its central message: we are all part of a single human family and love will overcome hate.

Distinguished guests, faculty, colleagues, friends, families, and of course, the graduating class of 2019, welcome. I’d also like to acknowledge those who could not be with us today. You are in our thoughts and occupy a special place in our hearts.

You’re a special class: there’s a world ranked racquetball player in there somewhere; a budding poet, essayist, teacher and engineer or two; there are artists, athletes, musicians, mechanics, thinkers and builders; a provincial hockey champion; a soccer player turned slam dunk artist; the host of a popular hunting channel on YouTube; and of course, a sleepy and bespectacled would-be theoretical physicist whom we’ll call Stephen. I see you’re organized into rows: have you figured out which rows contain the smartest students yet?

All kidding aside, you’re a fun, quirky, insightful, frequently feisty and intelligent group of young people. I look forward to working with and challenging you every day. I’ve particularly enjoyed our time spent in English together: there’s something about this particular classlikely the philosophical and theological aspectsmaking me feel what we were doing is meaningful and important (even necessary).

Over the last 20 years I’ve taught at a variety of schools; and in that time I’ve come to appreciate schools are a lot like people: each one has a unique personality. Some you like more than others. Some you look forward to seeing every day while others you’d just as soon avoid. This school is one of those places a person looks forward to seeing; and I take a lot of pride in what we do here, and what God accomplishes through us. Despite teaching here so long though, I’ve found it nearly impossible to explain why this place means so much to me. I’ve always felt I loved it here but for one reason or another failed articulating exactly why (like when you fall in loveit just sort of happens, no conscious explanation is necessary).

At the end of the second semester back in 2014, I gave my senior English students an opportunity to write an exit essay. The essay’s question was “What does this school mean to me?” There was no minimum or maximum length. The essay wasn’t for marks. I just wanted to give students an opportunity to reflect on their time here knowing that, at least in my experience, it can be difficult for many to say goodbye. In the process there were a number of wonderfully written and heartfelt responses. One such response, in particular, has stood out for me over the years. Kayden Johnson wrote a single word: family.

In a single word KJ captured perfectly what makes our school so special. Whether you identify as Christian or not, whether you practice a religion or not, we are part of the same family, you and I; as the Apostle Paul observes in First Corinthians we are brothers and sisters belonging to a single family brought together by Christ Jesus; and that family is built on faith, hope, and above all, love.

With that said, and based on how big of a weirdo some of y’all can be at times, there’s something else about this school making me feel particularly at home and at ease. Martin Luther observed we are free because we are fully forgiven children of God. We are no longer compelled to keep God’s Law out of fear in order to obtain salvation. Paul tells us we cannot earn salvation anyways; it’s an underserved gift given freely to us through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross by the grace of God. “A Christian,” Luther wrote, “is perfectly free, subject to none.” Yet, Luther presents us with a caveat: although we are “subject to none” we still have a responsibility to look after and care for one another.

The freedom of being Christian comes with responsibility. Thus, if you’ll permit me, I’d like to share some of my thoughts relating to that responsibility to love one another as members of a single human family.

Several years ago someone in Pakistan placed an ad in a newspaper offering a reward to anyone who killed a Canadianany Canadian. The ad was likely a response to then Canada’s involvement in the War in Afghanistan. Interestingly, an Australian dentist published an editorial responding to the strange request. He wanted to define what a Canadian was so non-Canadians would recognize them whenever they encountered one. I’d like to share part of that response with you today:

A Canadian [the Australian writes] can be English, or French, or Italian, Irish, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian or Greek. A Canadian can be Mexican, [Nigerian, Congolese, Cameroonian, Kenyan, or South African]. They can be Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean…Iranian, Asian, Arab, Pakistani or Afghan. A Canadian may also be an [Inuit], Cree, Metis, Mohawk, Blackfoot, Sioux, Dakota, or a member of one of the many other peoples known collectively as First Nations.

A Canadian lives in one of the most prosperous [countries] in the history of the world. The root of that prosperity can [in part] be found in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which recognizes the right of each person to [pursue their individual happiness in a society governed and secured under the rule of law].

A Canadian is generous and Canadians have helped out just about every other nation in the world in their time of need, never asking [anything] in return. Canadians welcome the best of everything, the best products, the best books, the best music, the best food, the best services and the best minds. But they also welcome the leastthe oppressed, the outcast and the rejected.

These are the people who built Canada.

You can try to kill a Canadian if you must…but in so doing you could [well] just be killing a relative or a neighbor. This is because Canadians are not a particular people from a particular place. [Canada is an idea.] Canadians are the embodiment of the human spirit of freedom. Everyone who holds to that spirit, everywhere, [is] a Canadian.

Now to my reckoning being Canadian means becoming a citizen of the world. Also, I think, as this short article implies, to be Canadian is to try and make a positive difference in that world. For example, in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1970s, Canada accepted over 50,000 Vietnamese escaping communism. In 1956 Hungary unsuccessfully attempted to push out the occupying forces of the Soviet Union. Soviet tanks ruthlessly crushed the uprising displacing tens of thousands. Canada provided a haven for 50,000 Hungarians fleeing the subsequent reprisals and political repression.

During the middle of 20th century hundreds of thousands of people from every continent immigrated to Canada in the hope of making a new life for themselves and their families. Between 1890 and 1914 approximately two million people from countries like China, Japan, India, Ireland, Scotland, England, America, Poland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Ukraine immigrated to Canada; they helped build Canada while contributing to the evolution of a new kind of countryone not founded upon the Old World model of “blood and soil” but one constructed upon the New World principles of freedom and liberty.

It’s vitally important to possess an understanding of our history, like the process followed by our ancestors who made Canada their home, in order to appreciate what’s happening in the present. However, at the risk of sounding pessimistic and to quote Hegel, if there is one lesson history teaches us it is we do not learn from our history.

In 2011 a civil war broke out in Syria displacing millions. Between 2016 and 2017 Canada welcomed 40,000 Syrian refugees fleeing an absolutely brutal conflict. Many Canadians felt a combination of compassion and unease in the wake of this particular wave of immigration. I’m not naive. I understand current events well enough appreciating the risks, actual and perceived, associated with Canada opening its borders in this way. Some Canadians, ones calling themselves nationalists, cautioned we shouldn’t accept so many Muslims. Nonetheless, the idealist in me, the Jesus in me, believes we did the right thing (despite the fear mongering).

And do not underestimate how thankful these men, women and children are to Canada for giving them a home. In May of 2016 a wildfire devastated the City of Fort McMurray. Rita Khanchet Kallas, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Calgary with her husband and son in December of 2015 wrote a message in Arabic on a Facebook page for a Calgary-based Syrian refugee group. “Canadians,” she wrote,”have provided us with everything and now we have a duty. We must help the people who lost their homes and everything in a fire in Oil City. Get ready, it’s time to fulfill.”

Within hours of posting the group was mobilized assembling food hampers, toys, clothes, and furniture to aid the families of Fort McMurray. This act was particularly gracious. You have to understand, the small Syrian community in Calgary had very little themselves. But they understood first hand what it meant for an entire city to lose their home. That’s something they could easily relate to because they went through the exact same thing themselves.

History teaches us is we do not learn from our history.

Social media is definitely new, but xenophobia (or hatred of the foreigner or the alien) is not.

I’ve watched, dismayed, as some Canadians with European sounding last names post fear-based stories to their social media timelines while complaining about how people with Syrian sounding last names were going to ruin the country.

We’ve been here before: many of the same Canadians complaining about Syrian refugees today are themselves the descendants of immigrants who were likewise labelled dangerous, strange, people who were going to wreck the country. The irony of this should not be lost on anyone possessing either a modicum of compassion or a basic knowledge of their own history; and just so we’re clear I’m not trying to be provocative or mean or single out how either this or that person is bad. I am just observing which, I suppose, is something of a resident hazard of being a historian.

And so we forget our history (particularly when times are difficult); and a country without a sense of its history is doomed to repeat its past mistakes.

There has been an unmistakable rise in the forces of nationalism and tribalism in the Western World over the last ten years; and it appears democracy and pluralism is in retreat everywhere. Populist governments are gaining more and more support because people can’t seem to come together to solve their problems. I find it troubling so many of us seem to be coming increasingly more tolerant of things a decade ago would’ve seemed impossible. I worry most in this moment for my Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters. I wonder what the future holds for them if hatred and hate speech is ever again allowed to go mainstream or become “normal”.

A friend of mine was working at a fruit stand when a lady came up and asked if any of the cherries were grown by Muslims. She was asking because she didn’t want to support Muslim businesses. This is how you destroy the democratic spirit: unlike dictatorships which end with the death of a single tyrant, democracy dies the death of a 1,000 such wounds.

This Muslim cherry episode reminds me of how Roman emperors once persecuted Christians whenever Rome’s economic or political situation wasn’t favourable. If Romans were focused on hating Christians they’d spend less time worrying about the emperor’s ineptitude.

Does that sound eerily familiar? History doesn’t necessarily repeat but it seems to rhyme.

Since the American presidential election in 2016 Canada has seen a 30% increase in the number of hate groups in the country (six of which are right here in Saskatchewan); and hate crime rates are correspondingly increasing–jumping a staggering 47% in 2017 alone, according to Stats Canada, and there’s no indication of this trend reversing any time soon.

Homo homini lupus. This Latin phrase first appeared in the Third Century BCE but could just as well have been written in 2019; translated into English it means “man is a wolf to man.”

Whether we’re talking about the ancient or the modern world, societies continue reverting to the politics of division; they do this so complex social issues like immigration or identity can be boiled down into simple solitudes and simple hatreds. The two recent attacks on synagogues in the United States, and the mosque attack in Quebec last year, point disturbingly to the reality the West has a long way to go after all when it comes to justice.

To the Graduands: St. Augustine once observed “hope has two daughters whose names are Anger and Courage: Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see they do not remain as they are.”

Therefore, do not be apathetic when hatred shows its cowardly face; do not allow yourselves to become accustomed to or accept hate speech or meanness as normal; what and how we say what we say matters; and I’m not trying to be politically correct. I’m appealing to common decency and Jesus’ commandment: love one another as I have loved you.

Do not turn a blind eye to injustice: evil only succeeds when men and women of good conscience sit back and do nothing; be willing to think in nuances, not platitudes; do not dismiss out of hand those who disagree with you. Too many of us are too easily offended; understand disagreement doesn’t make us enemies, it makes us human. So don’t argue to win, argue to learn. Be willing to change your mind…

It occurred to me there’s another reason why I love this place: Jesus. Jesus taught me, more than anyone else, to include the excluded; to fight for the underdog; to defend those incapable of defending themselves; to show compassion, patience and understanding; to delight in the success of others; to encourage because I’ve been encouraged; forgive because I’ve been forgiven; and to love because I am loved. Be fearless then, and courageous, in the face of prejudice and discrimination wherever you encounter it; and if you remember only one thing from our time together this afternoon, and it is implied by the quote written so boldly on the wall behind me, remember this: love wins.

“Let us realize”, Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, “that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Thus, if you’re ever unsure what to do when confronted with any of the situations I’ve talked about the right answer is always to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Before closing I have one favor I’d like to ask of everyone gathered here this afternoon: whether you know them or not could you take the hand of the person or persons sitting next to you?

[Promote a figurative “crossing of the aisle” between the rows separated by the center aisle.]

One of my favorite moments in A. A. Milne’s The House on Pooh Corner is when Piglet is trying to catch up to his friend, Winnie the Pooh.

“Pooh?” Piglet whispers.

“Yes, Piglet?”

“Nothing,” said Piglet, taking Pooh’s paw. “I just wanted to be sure of you.”

Building a better world means, at least in part, removing the barriers to our understanding and accepting one another. The awkwardness you’re possibly experiencing right now, holding the hand maybe of a complete stranger, captures perfectly the nature of that barrier towards building a better world: it is a mental and psychological one. Change our thinking and we can change the world. My challenge to you, right now, is to weaken that wall by turning a potential stranger into a friend. So gently squeeze the hand of your neighbors and reassure them, “I am sure of you.”

The transcendental quality of lovethrough even the simplest of gesturesfills me with hope because, even if you try to improve the world in some measure and fail, you can still take some consolation you’ve allied yourself with Something greater. I suspect love, in a certain sense, even survives the Cosmos’ end: hugs transcending time; joy outliving the joyful; gentleness and acceptance persisting past the end of all things; and the gravity of a deep upwelling of feeling flows even past the bounds of a finite physical universe.

And so here we are, at the end: grads do you recall back in September when I told you today would come faster than you thought? I told you not to be in too much of a hurry to finish the year because endings, when it comes to this place, are particularly emotional experiences. I know this because I’ve said goodbye to my fair share of colleagues and students who I miss, love, and who occupy my thoughts whenever the sentimental impulse takes me. Thus, “I will not say do not weep,” J. R. R. Tolkien’s Gandalf explains to his friends while preparing to leave Middle Earth forever for the Gray Havens, “for not all tears are an evil.”

Be thankful we’ve had this time together understanding that when one one door closes so opens another.

Thank you.

The Propaganda Value of

Evolution News is an arm of the Discovery Institute (DI). The DI is not a science-based institution but a creationist think tank from the United States. The DI, and their proxies like Evolution News, are well-known for promoting pseudoscience. Two of the most influential ideas coming from the DI are intelligent design—really a watchmaker argument for God—and Michael Behe’s “irreducible complexity”, e.g. something as complex as the human eye could not possibly evolve over time because the rods, cones, retina, and such are, well, irreducibly complex.

Both intelligent design and irreducible complexity were used in the mid 2000s as part of the Discovery Institute’s “wedge strategy” for getting creationism taught alongside evolution in science classes in the United States. Unfortunately for the creationists, they can offer nothing but rhetoric in support of their positions, i.e. they have not conducted a single viable or peer reviewed experiment supporting their hypotheses (because their hypothesis is really just a fancy way of saying God did it which is entirely unfalsfiable). Since the DI offers nothing tangible in the way of research to back up its assertions they lack scientific credibility. I would not go to this site for scientific reasons; however, I would go to this site if I wanted to learn more about the “culture wars” raging in the United States. Sites like Evolution News don’t dabble in science but in theological and philosophical hand waving; it is a fundamentalist propaganda website.

Here are a couple links you might find illuminating as they relate to the DI (and by extension to Evolution News):

1). The “wedge strategy” I mentioned before is an important thing to be aware of, i.e. since the DI has repeatedly failed to use courts to push creationism into biology classrooms they have changed tactics. The tactic is now to attack science itself generally (not just evolution). If public confidence in science can be sufficiently eroded, the thinking is then evolution can be weakened and in the space created creationism can be seen as a more viable explanation. Wedge strategy – Wikipedia

2). For legal context, check out the Wiki on the Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School Board case. This was, I believe, the most recent attempt by the DI to get creationism into science classrooms. The DI failed, again, because they offer nothing concrete in the way of experiments, tests, and so on. Here’s a link to that case: Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District – Wikipedia. Interestingly, I read a book written by one of the biologists who was called to testify in this case on whether or not irreducible complexity and intelligent design were “scientific” theories. The biologist’s name is Ken Miller—a Catholic who believes in God by the way—who argued that these were not scientific theories because they could not be falsified, i.e. a genuine science question must be capable of being either proven or disproven. Intelligent design, for instance, is really the equivalent of just saying “God did it” when it comes to life on Earth. You cannot prove or disprove the claim. Anyways, Miller wrote a book called Only a Theory. He talks about the case and about Behe and so on in this book.

If you aren’t the reading type, you could download and listen to the podcast Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe (episode 190). Dr. Steven Novella interviews Miller and I believe they discuss the Kitzmiller decision and Miller’s role. Here’s the link to that: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe.

Again, Evolution News is nonsense from a scientific standpoint; it is an example of propaganda and little else.

She Died on a Saturday

The anniversary of my mom’s death is fast approaching. I wrote this piece twenty years ago and wanted to share it.

Looking Back
Looking back on my life I can barely recall a time when mom wasn’t sick or ailing in some measure. Don’t get me wrong I’ve got plenty of fond memories. In particular, I miss how she’d affectionately say things like “Rick, you’re such a geek” after I’d share one of my peculiar insights into life’s meaning when I was a kid.  Another memory that comes to mind is when I brought home Nintendo Golf. To play the game you had to swing a golf-club controller to hit the ball on the screen. Both of my parents were hardcore golfers so it didn’t take much to convince them to give the game a try. Dad liked it immediately.  When he got to the third tee he decided he wanted to hit the ball a little further so he swung the controller a little bit faster and in the process drove the club straight through a light fixture in the ceiling.

He was mortified.

I laughed so hard I could barely breathe (I actually fell to the ground). My dad was embarrassed by it all. Laughing at him didn’t help things. He wanted blood. You could see it in his eyes. He was a father of the old-school: one of those spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child types, a man expecting automatic respect and deference, a man who could not laugh at himself. And that’s why I found the situation so uncontrollably funny. (I felt like one of the palace guards from Monty Python’s Life of Bryan who couldn’t stop laughing because the governor kept saying the name Biggus Dickus to him over and over and over again.)  If it weren’t for mom dad would’ve killed me with that fake golf club.

She was an amazing woman. I went through something akin to a mid-life crisis around the age of twelve.  I specifically remember having a conversation with her on how life for me was irrevocably changing. (And I don’t mean changing in the sense hair started growing in places it hadn’t before.) I meant change in that I remained the same while everyone seemed to be growing more complicated; life was becoming inexplicably and un-necessarily harder; and peers—especially girls—made even less sense to me than before. She didn’t offer advice or attempt to explain away what I was feeling. I remember the exact words she spoke to me in the kitchen during that conversation 37 years ago. “You still want to be a kid.  I understand.” She was right.

I was the last of four kids to move out. I returned to visit only infrequently, and when I did, it wasn’t to visit my parents so much as to spend time with the neglected family cat or to play my drum set. I took my parents entirely for granted. I assumed they’d always be there. Perhaps that’s what made accepting mom’s death all the more difficult?

I couldn’t comprehend the loss.

I don’t believe it. That’s how I responded after learning she had cancer. I simply couldn’t believe it. Somewhere in the back of my mind I must’ve thought disease and death only affected other people. Many of us—including me—just don’t learn the lessons childhood should teach us through the countless bumps, bruises and band-aids.

We are mortal.

Ignoring the fact we die prevents us from living realistically; and when we dodge the balls life throws at us we not only ignore reality’s perils we fail to explore its possibilities.

Certainly subtle hints of mom’s decline were visible (if only a person knew what to look for). Unfortunately the cancer continued growing undetected until the most terrible and obvious symptoms of the disease expressed themselves. Though the effects of cancer are very real, the lightness with which people treat it never fails to astound me—especially in the case of smoking related cancer. People justify a stupid habit like smoking by appealing to the myth of the ancient smoking uncle or that it’ll never happen to me.

What makes you so special? Nothing.

When you rationalize away the danger you disarm yourself and empower the disease and its known causes. And guess what?  You may not know it but the decisions you’re making today have future consequences for your family (some members you may not even have met yet). Mom never did get to hold even one of my three sons. She would’ve adored them. They’re geeks like me.

Some Bad News
After spending several hours reading in a quiet corner of the university’s main library, I packed up my things and headed home for supper. Passing through the heavy silver doors of the library’s front entrance I entered the winter night invigorated by the cold. Snow blanketed the ground a foot deep in every direction. Jumping from one foot impression to the next I reached my rusted out Chevrolet Malibu. Sitting in the car waiting for it to warm up I felt like I was forgetting something: earlier in the day dad said he’d taken mom to the hospital for tests. She was supposed to stay overnight for observation. I decided to visit her before heading home.

Driving northbound down University Drive the dark outline of the hospital rose slowly above the lighted silhouette of Saskatoon’s downtown. Too cheap to park at a pay meter I risked the law’s fury by parking illegally at a nearby lot intended for the exclusive use of contractors. I made my way towards one of the hospital’s side doors. A group of white coated and professional-looking people—nurses, doctors, technicians—stood huddled smoking together in front of the entrance. I took a deep breath plunging through them to open the door entering the building. I ascended a set of brick steps entering the cathedral-like hospital mall—a massive elongated room with a towering ceiling and a multitude of cascading windows. Moments later I was at the information desk where an older woman sat in the middle of an octagonal desk doing nothing in particular.

I asked the attendant what room my mom was in. She began prattling away at a dusty keyboard: 6-1-0-3.  Thanking the attendant I made for the nearest elevator. Entering the elevator car I pressed the button for the sixth floor.  I moved to the back of the car busying myself reading posters on a non-descript bulletin board. One poster read “Pastry sale.  St. Joseph’s Church.  January 26th at 12 noon.”  Another read “If you see someone with an identification band around their wrist leaving the building, please notify hospital personnel.” Although the posters were about as stimulating to read as the Periodic Table of Elements, the material served its purpose: while the body is stuck somewhere it doesn’t want to be the mind remains free. I discovered this time gobbling trick of distraction at church when I was seven. Too young to understand anything the priest said I occupied myself counting each individual page of every song book I could find in the pews. In fact, my siblings and I turned page counting into a competitive game racing one another to see who could count them all first. Although I didn’t turn into much of a Christian I did develop panache for counting.

The elevator rumbled to a halt and the door opened. Entering a darkened hall I turned right, then right again, and walked towards a nursing station. I saw the number to mom’s room. I stepped inside but was impeded by a wide green curtain hanging across its width: peeling back the curtain I saw my proud father lying prostrate before my mother, holding her hand, sobbing. Meekly I approached her bedside. Her face was beet red, cheeks speckled with tiny sanguine dots—a product of relentless coughing; her hair hung about her shoulders in hapless clumps; and a film of hardened mucous formed into sores on her lips. I must’ve startled dad because he raised his head abruptly trying to brush away his tears. Mom was almost unrecognizable. I knelt down to touch her hand. Dad spoke to her quietly, “Dawn. Dawn. Richard is here. He’s come to see you.”

She raised her head feebly to acknowledge me and my throat felt like someone was squeezing it from the inside. I choked out a, “Hey, mom…” and looked up at dad searching for some sort of explanation. He avoided eye contact. So, dispensing with the pleasantry of discussing death around the dying, I asked him point blank what was wrong. He explained she hadn’t been feeling well for at least two months and she was having difficulty speaking. She didn’t feel well around Christmas. The inability to speak, however, was a revelation. He should’ve told me sooner. The anger I felt towards him disappeared replaced by a tremendous sense of guilt at being such a distant, self-absorbed son.

“Let’s go for a walk.  Mom needs to rest,” dad said while we walked out of the room into a deserted hall. “Rick, it doesn’t look good. There’s a good to definite chance she has cancer.”

He explained the doctors believed her dementia was caused by pressure on the brain from a tumor. (That didn’t explain why she was having trouble breathing.) She had swollen lymph nodes all about her neck and under her arms (sure signs of the presence of the killer disease). An examination was scheduled to take place sometime in the next few days to confirm the diagnosis. Then they would determine the most appropriate course of action. Instantly, the thought of her smoking entered my mind and my hatred for it grew.

“Apparently the source of the cancer has to be found,” dad explained. “If it starts in the lungs, then they have very different treatments than if it were discovered to emanate from the ovaries.”  He squeezed the back of my neck and said, “We’ll just have to prepare for the worst.”

I returned to the room alone to giving dad a chance to grab a cup of coffee. Her eyes followed me slowly as I moved across the room. Her neck remained perfectly rigid. I sat on dad’s chair and smiled awkwardly. The scab-like build up on her lips looked uncomfortable, even painful.

“Would you like me to clean up your mouth?” I asked.

She nodded.  I grabbed a wet cloth from the bathroom wiping away as much of the hardened ooze as I could. I felt like a person holding a newborn baby for the first time—I didn’t know how to hold it and I felt like I might break it if I was too rough. Something didn’t feel right about the situation (it felt backwards). I’m supposed to be the one who’s sick and she should be taking care of me. This wasn’t right. Mom, you’re supposed to get me some ginger ale to calm my stomach and a Batman comic from the corner store; I’ll skip school and watch television on the couch. I’ll feel better, no problem. Stroke my hair that always made me feel amazing and loved. I put the soiled cloth on the bedside table and returned to sit down beside her.


I inspected her puffy hand lying on the other side of the bed’s safety rail. When I was little I used to watch the Amazing Spiderman during Saturday morning cartoons.  I’d be eating my cereal and she’d walk up to me and start stroking my hair with that hand. She made me feel so cozy. I always hoped it would never stop. Now that hand appeared so alien. I extended my trembling hand to hers and began to cry quietly. The unrecognizable woman transformed into the mother I knew in my youth, and she used every ounce of strength remaining to her to say, “I’m sorry.” I cried uncontrollably laying my head and broken heart on the bed beside her. Life made so much sense until then.

The Last Day
I didn’t visit her the next day. Instead, I broke hospital policy sneaking up to her room after visiting hours the following night. The hall and nursing station were empty. The door to her room closed. I hesitated momentarily and then opened the door. I discovered her lying in the middle of thought—her mouth agape, eyes fixed blankly on the wall, head hanging still as a doily off a piano nobody plays anymore. She took no notice of me. What goes on in the mind of someone who has so little time left to live? To me it is the thinking about, and not the actual, death that causes me the most trouble. I found out the next day mom wasn’t the scared one (I was).  Dad told me she admitted being ready to die, not fearing it, more concerned with the welfare of her children.

Three weeks later mom was admitted to the Palliative Ward at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the ward where you go to die. There are no more treatments. Instead, doctors just try to take the edge off the pain. Nevertheless, even at this late a juncture, I still held out hope she’d recover.

Hope abandoned my family on this final day. I remember walking into her room half-expecting to see her sitting up able to carry on a conversation. She barely acknowledged me when I stopped at the foot of the bed affectionately squeezing the shape of her sheet-covered foot. She was so much weaker now: the steroids she took controlling the growth of the tumor was destroying her immune system. The night before the final day she got pneumonia. Her breathing sounded like that sucking noise when you’re trying to get the last bit of pop out of a cup with a straw.

My wife Camille arrived a little later the same day. I remember this vividly because it was the last time mom ever spoke to me. I sat by a window facing 20th Street holding a novel called The Immigrants. I didn’t do much reading (I found it comforting to hold a book in my hand for some reason). I was watching mom literally drown as her mouth and lungs filled with mucous she couldn’t expel. Mom motioned for Camille to come a little closer and then spoke something inaudible into her ear. Camille turned and said to me mom didn’t want me to stare at her anymore. Embarrassed I turned my gaze back out the window where a collection of tears and brilliant sunlight co-mingled blurring the cars on the busy street below into indistinguishable moving shapes. Camille used a mouth swab wiping away some of the mucous choking mom. In my heart I was so grateful for Camille’s help because it diminished, temporarily at least, months of futility.

Mom died that night.

It was a Saturday I think around 1:50 am. She was surrounded by her entire family. Her children (and their spouses) eventually left the room as her breathing became increasingly shallower with every minute. Three-quarters of an hour later dad appeared at the doorway to the family room where we were all sitting talking. He said she was gone. When I entered the room her mouth was puckered as if stubbornly asleep and her arms were stretched at the sides abandoned of life. I laid my head on the bed beside her, lifted her left hand and placed it on my head one last time.

I kissed her one last time.

When I was around ten years old I had a remarkable experience. I decided to include this experience in the narrative because in retrospect it seems connected:

I was lying in my bed thinking about my Grandpa Wilson (my mom’s dad) who’d just recently died of lung cancer. His death scared me because my mom was also a smoker. I feared she’d die in the same way. I wept bitterly begging God to take some of my remaining days and give them to her. While I cried a beautiful female voice spoke from the corner of the darkened room. The voice spoke two words absolutely dripping in compassion, “Oh, Rick.”  That’s it. In complete and child-like awe I shut right up scouring the darkness for the voice’s origin. I fell almost instantaneously asleep.

Sadly 16 years later my fears were realized. Just like grandpa and Aunty Joyce and Uncle Billy and Mrs. Johnson and Mrs. Maki, etc. mom succumbed to a disease that continues to kill millions.  Now older, stronger, and supposedly wiser, I’ve come to look back on this mysterious voice with scepticism and disbelief; that is, until a similar experience took place when I was 26 years old. Mom had been dead nearly a year and obviously I missed her. I missed her so much. I feared somehow that I was forgetting what she looked like. I tried remembering every detail, the sound of her voice, and I couldn’t.

And then I heard that same voice again.

A woman’s voice spoke my name into my right ear. I  swear I heard it two just two inches away clear as day. Yet, despite how concrete both experiences felt I remain skeptical. For good or for ill I’m just not hardwired to accept these kinds of things at face value. Many years ago I learned the Cree believe that when a person cries he or she is then closest to the Creator. Maybe there was something to this whole voice/crying thing after all? I don’t know. There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know if I’ll meet mom again or a semblance of her or if this brief existence is all there is. Yet, I know and feel she lives on in my heart like a poem—a pure metaphor of the mother—an impression that will remain until her youngest son joins her.


Canada in the Age of Trump

Months before Donald Trump won the Republican nomination and then the U.S. Presidency, Matthew MacWilliams, a University of Massachusetts postdoctoral candidate, stumbled across a striking way of looking at a candidate who seemed to defy all the rules of politics.
His polling research had revealed that parenting styles were a powerful predictor of voter attitudes towards Trump. In particular, MacWilliams discovered that those who preferred authoritarian child-rearing approaches—who valued traits such as obedience and good behavior in their children over curiosity or independence—were much more likely to back Trump. Moreover, their support wasn’t strictly contingent on traditional party preferences. As MacWilliam’s polls showed, authoritarian parenting preferences can be found among both Republicans and Democrats.
To further confirm his hypothesis, he also looked at correlations between those with authoritarian outlooks and more specific political views, such as attitudes towards the protection of minorities, terrorism and immigration. The results further confirmed the distinct alignment of values and politics that allowed Trump to win over working-class Midwesterners, religious South¬erners and even some affluent younger people, among them voters who might have balked at his positions on LBGTQ+ rights or looked askance at his behavior.
Extracted from Michael Adams’ Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit.

The Scientific Worldview

The ancients answered unanswerable questions by saying “God (or the gods) did it.”

Questions surrounding the mystery of why people got sick, comets flew inexplicably across the sky, and volcanoes blew their tops, and so on, were explained through an appeal to mythical and religious narratives. This appeal reflected the very human need to address uncertainty by exerting, however ineffectual, some modicum of control over the external world. Human nature has not fundamentally changed (so people continue resorting to magical thinking and metaphysical handwaving in the present day).

As it turns out, what the ancients lacked wasn’t control but knowledge and an effective methodology: they lacked the techniques, critical thinking, worldview and technology required to leave the safety of the cave and emerge into the light seeing the world as it is as opposed to how it ought to be.

Science, the scientific method specifically, reveals we get sick due to disease carrying pathogens (not demons); comets are not harbingers of doom but conglomerates of rock and ice orbiting the Sun with clocklike precision; and volcanoes don’t blow up because the god of the underworld demands a virgin as sacrifice (it erupts due to a series of naturally occurring geological processes).

Religion gave us formulaic reasoning like “God did it.” Not particularly informative or descriptive.

Science gives us dynamic reasoning like “X happened due to physical factor A, B or possibly C.”

Science has shaped us socially and morally, in that, we make moral decisions (in the West) based on appeals to experience and practicality rather than to prescriptions like the Ten Commandments; and socially we have, and continue to develop, new relationships with one another through rationality in the form of democratic institutions, the necessary separation of Church and State, and establishing societies governed through the rule of law (as opposed to the rule of caprice).