Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

Science and religion

December 9, 2011

I posted an entry this week over at Qideas about science and evangelical religion. Columnists are hyperventilating at what they perceive to be the anti-intellectualism of the Republican candidates, and more than a few are drawing conclusions about evangelicals from what they hear. But survey data on attitudes toward science among evangelicals are more encouraging, and show that they more faithfully Christians actually practice their religion (for example by reading the Bible!), the more sympathetic they feel toward science and its findings.

One study showing that religiosity leads to harmony between science and religion comes from Baylor University, where researcher Aaron Franzen finds that increased frequency of Bible reading is tied to, among other things, improved attitudes toward science. “Respondents were 22 percent less likely to view religion and science as incompatible at each step toward more frequent Bible reading,” according to David Briggs, who reported the Baylor study for Association of Religion Data Archives. (Interestingly, higher rates of Bible reading were also correlated with greater support for social and economic justice, simple lifestyles, humane treatment of criminals, and with lower support for abortion, same-sex unions, the death penalty, and the expansion of the war on terrorism.)

Interesting this week that the Obama administration was derided for giving in to “anti-science” pressure when it blocked over-the-counter access to the “morning after” pill for minors. Those pundits are willfully ignorant about what is science and what is morality, thinking that measurements of a drug’s effectiveness ought somehow to determine whether a minor should be able to access it without adult guidance or parental input. The same goes for claims that opposition to fetal stem cell research is somehow anti-scientific. One can certainly accept that experimenting on human embryos may lead to advances in scientific knowledge, while at the same time affirming that it is entirely immoral to conduct such research.

Evangelicals Advocate Mercury Reductions to Protect the Unborn

October 19, 2011

by Rusty Pritchard

Creation care opponents have thrown caution to the wind. Emboldened by demagogues like Glenn Beck, they’re not averse to painting as “totalitarians” anyone even slightly concerned about pollution, resource conservation, biodiversity loss, or energy efficiency.

The Washington Times published a piece on May 19, 2011, by creation care critic Cal Beisner purporting to reveal the “hidden dangers” in the National Day of Prayer for Creation Care, which was sponsored by the Evangelical Environmental Network (EEN). Among their “dangerous” prayer requests: reducing mercury pollution that passes from pregnant mothers to their unborn babies.

Aside from being a worthy cause in its own right, the campaign seemed to me to be good apologetics as well. Here were evangelical Christians claiming publicly that God’s call to compassion and wise dominion extends to stopping air pollution that affects our most vulnerable citizens, growing the credibility of the pro-life witness by linking it to more than fighting abortion (the frequency of which, we must all admit, remains our greatest current national travesty), and doing so with smart, well-documented research and policy recommendations. I personally know of formerly pro-choice environmentalists who have changed their positions on abortion because of encountering pro-life evangelical environmental advocates.

But the most visible anti-environmentalists never let concerns about the church’s witness in the world overcome their fundamental desire to fight even the suggestion that democratically elected governments might use their regulatory authority to protect the environment. The libertarian ends consistently trump the means, and evangelism tends to be the first casualty, with regard for truth a close second.

In Beisner’s critique, he constructed two straw-man claims that EEN’s materials didn’t make; and even the way he rebuts the fictitious claims reveals a lot about his commitments.

Beisner said EEN claimed “the main source of mercury pollution is dirty air released by coal-burning power plants” and that international sources are more important. Beisner apparently didn’t read the materials he was criticizing, because they didn’t say what he said they did. Apparently the Washington Times can’t afford fact-checkers. EEN gave a quite detailed explanation on the sources of mercury pollution, and the relative contribution of domestic and international sources, which varies from place to place (they even provided a map).

But the reason Beisner invented that red herring is that he sniffed out an attempt to strengthen regulation on emissions from coal-fired power plants. He challenged a fictitious version of EEN’s claims about sourcing, because he didn’t want to draw attention to their well-researched claims about the economic benefits from regulating mercury emissions (which predict $60-140 billion in total health benefits, or a return of $5-13 for every $1 invested in meeting the regulations).

It wouldn’t be surprising, when we look back from the future, if the costs of limiting mercury went down relative to predictions and the benefits went up. That’s been the case with other environmental regulations as well—something even those opposed to regulations at the time now admit. Since we enacted the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, the economy has grown 64 percent while air pollution has gone down 41 percent, a puzzle to those who predict economic collapse in the face of strong environmental regulations.

Beisner goes on to accuse EEN of being a mouthpiece for the environmental lobby, repeating someone else’s suspect talking points about how bad mercury is for fetuses. But he ignored the peer-reviewed scientific literature the EEN documents clearly cite—again, he simply makes stuff up about EEN and its campaign to suit his own rhetorical purposes.

Beisner gives a drastically lower figure for unborn babies afflicted with unsafe levels of mercury in their blood—but he doesn’t say where he got his figures. So it turns out that Beisner committed the vice he (wrongly) accuses EEN of. EEN cited multiple studies that demonstrate not just how many infants are affected by mercury in utero but also to what degree, and (crucially) puts a dollar value on the health benefits of mercury pollution reductions.

I’m sympathetic to the problems of exaggeration and the nuances of weighing costs and benefits. I railed in the past about the irrational fears some parents have about the tiny amounts of mercury in vaccines, when the private and public health benefits from being vaccinated so far outweighs any negligible risk. Atmospheric mercury emissions are a different case—but it’s an empirical question, not an ideological question. Because Beisner is motivated chiefly by a libertarian worldview, he simply assumes that the costs of reducing mercury emissions will outweigh the direct and indirect benefits, when the best evidence shows that the reverse is actually true.

Beisner is certainly a devoted advocate. He is faithful to his ideology and political positions and tireless in their defense. There is indeed a strong case to be made for the free market and for capitalism; environmental policies for a flourishing economy would be much better if they reflected the concerns of economic conservatives. That case is not made stronger, however, by a sloppy critique that runs roughshod over facts or by deafness to reasonable counterarguments.

Beisner cites, without apparent sense of the irony, 1 Thessalonians 5:21 (in reference to prophecies, the readers are told to “test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil”). Free market advocacy and creation care advocacy can be done with care, rigor, and honesty. When the lost world is watching the way we argue, it is a necessity.

A natural resource economist, Rusty Pritchard is the cofounder and president of Flourish (, a national Christian ministry that serves Christians as they grow in environmental stewardship, healthy living, and radical discipleship.

What do Haitians think about God and the Earthquake?

January 13, 2011

I asked Dr. Gerald Murray, an anthropologist and an expert on Haiti, and a Catholic, to write a blog post for Q Ideas about the religious response of people in Haiti to the earthquake a year ago. I know several American Christians who found their faith in the goodness of God rocked by the tragedy last January 12. He writes about the reasons Haitian Christians did not experience a similar crisis of faith. Maybe their view of God, who controls the universe and sends things we consider good and bad, is more accurate than the benign grandfather we imagine in the West.

Read for yourself.


December 2, 2010

I get invited to lots of “interfaith” events. Most are mislabeled–they aren’t really interfaith, they are “multifaith”, as Ed Stetzer recently put it.  (I usually start my talks by asking if there are any “interfaith” people there–and there usually isn’t anyone.) I suppose people like the word interfaith because it doesn’t sound very threatening.

It also doesn’t sound very interesting.  The main common features of interfaith gathering are that they are usually very poorly attended, and sometimes pretty dull. Those features are related. There just aren’t that many people out there looking for interfaith events to attend. And running our deeply help beliefs through a filter of what everyone has in common tends to screen out the things that give us a real identity. Interfaith events tend to attract the people who are at the edges of their religious traditions, escaping from the core, who are finding freedom in cosmopolitanism and universalism. But they wind up talking in vague platitudes about actual faith, or grossly misrepresenting their traditions.

All of the interesting things about religions are particular things. What makes me a Christian, rather than a Jew, or a Muslim, or anything else, is that I subscribe to a certain number of particular claims about events that I believe actually occurred in human history. I also believe a lot of particular things about God’s revelation to us. I have in some ways a lot more in common with Muslims who are glad to be Muslim, and who know why they are Muslim, than with Christians who are watering down their faith to find the least common denominators.

The abstract things that I believe in common with some other religions are not what makes me a Christian. But they are the things that make me human.

Our commonalities, if they exist, are found in ancient history, not in where we’re going but in where we’ve been–as a Christian I would say we share the image of God, and we are called as image-bearers to tend and keep what is good in human culture and in the rest of creation. There’s a lot of room to care for the common good. The Bible-believers (like me) point out that our charge to steward creation comes long before the special revelation to Abraham and his descendants. Genesis 1:26-28 points to a common humanity and common responsibility we share with all people, not just our co-religionists. I find it useful to point out that the religions are not climbing the same mountain, only to be surprised to meet each other at the top. Where we can get along and work together is down at the foot of our mountains, not at the summits.

Working for the common good can therefore be more than what Francis Schaeffer called “co-belligerency.” Co-belligerency happens when people who would otherwise despise each other agree to hold their noses and work together on an issue (as when feminists and conservatives work together to fight pornography). They may agree on a particular policy, but got there for very different reasons. Common good issues call us back to the most ancient fundamentals of responsibility to something bigger than ourselves, and in the process reminding ourselves of what it is to be human. Even Christians

True believers in other religions are happy when we acknowledge that there are real differences between us. True believers in a squishy interfaithism are less happy to hear that we don’t think we’re climbing the same mountain to God. Perhaps we should have separate meetings for those who believe in the truth of their traditions and those who don’t.

My ground rules for interfaith events:

(1) I’ll be speaking and interacting as a Christian, though I’ll be nice about it.

(2) I don’t do interfaith worship or prayer services. The more something looks like a worship service, the more it should be particular and not general. I’m happy to visit someone else’s church, temple, or mosque, but I don’t want them to blend it with my tradition.

(3) I won’t try to tell people from other religions what their religions say (or should say). I think it is at best meaningless, and at worst unfuriatingly patronizing, for Christians to tell Muslims that Islam is a religion of peace. It means rather more for a faithful Muslim to say it. I don’t want Unitarians telling me what I should believe about the Eucharist and organic food, or eschatology and environmental action. I’ll look to Christian thinkers to help me with that.

NOTE: There are environmental organizations in many states that go by the name “Interfaith Power and Light”. They do good work, helping houses of worship become more energy efficient. They also organize religious people to advocate for policies that fight global warming. They’re obviously pretty wedded to the name at this point, but the name helps to explain why evangelicals have not flocked to their programs. Oh, and the fact that they believe in that whole global warming thing…

Famous Chief Seattle environmental speech is actually a Southern Baptist document

October 20, 2010

“All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man does not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand of it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.”

Some of the most cherished words in the environmental movement were never uttered by the Native American chief to whom they are attributed. The famous “Chief Seattle” speech that contains the lines above was made up for a Southern Baptist film project about pollution in 1971 (thanks to Russell Moore for the trivia tip).  The writer, a professor of film named Ted Perry, was under contract to do the script, and he imagined what Chief Seattle might have to say about the environmental problems of the day. The words are moving–so moving that people soon forgot they were invented, and they took on a life of their own. (more…)

Your brain on computers; cyber mobs; natural theology

September 15, 2010

I had the good fortune of (finally) meeting Tom and Christine Sine of the Mustard Seed Associates in a coffee shop in a suburb of Chicago. We were all leading (different) workshops at the Christian Community Development Association meeting last week.

In our conversation, Tom raised the question of how computers and our use of them affects our social, spiritual, emotional development. Our use of computers changes us in some pretty fundamental ways. I shared with him a little about things we’ve been posting at Flourish about children, videophilia and nature-deficit-disorder, the roots of (literal) myopia, and Sabbath.

As so often, since that conversation I’ve come across more and more material about the connections between computers, morality, and elemental sociality–

1. At Flourish, my friend Kristyn Komarnicki, editor of PRISM magazine, write about the things she learned when she went on vacation without her laptop. For one thing, she was challenged about the way she worked the rest of the time, preaching to her kids about too much computer time but keeping her laptop open nights and weekends.

2. Another post, a panel interview actually, at Big Questions Online, asks “is the cyber-mob a threat to freedom?” This post has more to do with pathological social organization than with individual moral development, but they are related.

3. Alan Jacobs, who rarely disappoints, asks “why has Internet discourse devolved into a ‘war of every man against every man?’ ” One paragraph describes the strange passions ignited by online debates:

The author and commenters bristled at my critique. I bristled right back. The argument escalated. At one point, I said to myself, “All right, you want to play hardball, we’ll play hardball” — and I would have cut loose and said exactly what I wanted to say, except that at that moment my hands were shaking too violently for me to type accurately. I looked at my trembling fingers for a moment. Then I closed that browser tab and spent a few minutes removing all …[the related] blogs from my bookmarks and my RSS reader. I stopped reading those blogs and have never looked at them again to this day. I don’t think I’ve ever made a better decision.

Implicit in all of this is the sense that we may not have been created (or that we “didn’t evolve”) to cope with the high-tech, anonymous, hyperconnected, high-energy environments we now have created, so we might be prone to infelicitous side-effects. Kind of like we aren’t well adapted physiologically for automobile domination, given that the leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 1 and 24 is car accidents, and the obesity epidemic is more linked to the decline of walking and rise of automobile transportation than to changes in diet or organized sports.

Taken together, modern technologies quite a lot more mundane than genetic engineering and stem-cell research raise the question of what it means to be truly, fully human. I hope that some of the intellectual heft behind natural theology can eventually be put toward some of these extensions of the “theology of the body.”

Spill, baby, spill

May 2, 2010

By the end of last week, media attention to the massive oil slick growing in the Gulf of Mexico was beginning to focus on the usual story lines: on corporate culprits (accusing or defending companies like Haliburton or BP), on government inaction, on failed technology, and on the first bird victim to turn up (a lonely, oily Northern Gannett seemingly looking for assistance).

As usual, the media have the wrong end of the stick. They should be featuring you and me in their stories, not to get a man-in-the-street perspective, but to berate us as the real culprits.

The blame for the unfolding tragedy, which will affect people as well as animals, economies and ecosystems, resides with all energy users. We are driven to drill in ecologically sensitive areas because people like me and you demand cheap electricity and gasoline. It is at our implicit and anoymous direction that the proximate culprits undertake known risks to the healthy functioning of productive oceans, marshes, and beaches, not to mention the danger posed to oil rig workers (like the 11 workers whose deaths are now barely mentioned by the media).

We don’t chant “drill, baby, drill,” but we might as well.

Such disasters are not “inconceivable,” as BP PLC Chairman Lamar McKay said on Sunday. They are to be expected if we continue using energy the way we have in the past. It is more than conceivable that more drilling in more dangerous places and difficult environments will lead to more accidents. Oil companies are willing to take those risks with their workers’ lives and with other people’s livelihoods. We do more than permit them to do so; we demand that they do so.

In last month’s energy atrocity in the Appalachians, there was a similar unwillingness to admit that we are all culpable, with some notable exceptions. Most attention focused on Massey Energy Company and it larger-than-life, bad-as-he-wants-to-be chief Don Blankenship. As villainous as the CEO appears, he can claim his company is, like the tobacco companies, merely delivering a legal product that people want to use. It’s true. And there were lax federal regulators to share the blame in that tragedy as well.

The side effects of coal use are underground mine disasters, and aboveground ecological disasters, and they are only about as inconceivable as lung cancer and emphysema.

We have permitted those disasters, pretended that they are accidents, and failed to recognize that we actually call them into being through our use of energy. We simply don’t holistic vision of the costly side-effects of our consumption decisions. When we use energy and demand the extraction of fossil fuels on the scale our economy requires, we cannot call these disasters and tragedies accidents.

Even more worrisome is the fatalistic reaction to the big picture. Having learned that the unavoidable costs of cheap energy are certain deaths of coal miners and oil rig workers, the certain catastrophe of mountaintop removal mining, and the certain destruction of oil spills, we too often adopt a faux courage, a resolute acceptance that these side-effects are simply inevitable. We forget that we have choices.

We can choose to develop our energy economy differently. Cleaner, renewable energies are more costly than oil and coal, but only marginally so. Events of the last few months should remind us that there are human and ecologocial costs that aren’t included in the prices of gasoline and electricity. Even nuclear energy is, on average, safer and cleaner. [There are risks, but they have to be compared with the certainties of fossil fuel extraction and use, like the 24,000 excess American deaths caused every year by coal power plant pollution, or the 1 in 6 babies born to mothers with toxic levels of mercury in their bloodstream.]

A recent report shows that the American South, depauperate in some forms of renewable energy, is actually the “Saudi Arabia of energy efficiency,” according to Dr. Marilyn Brown, who helped write the report.

Choices we make at the margin, to conserve or to consume, are incredibly important. Each increment energy we demand drives workers into riskier situations in ever more sensitive ecological areas. In contrast, each increment of energy we save or replace with renewable alternatives reduces the need for workers and creation to undergo these high risks. The payoff, even for small changes, is disproportionate to the costs.

It’s too bad our wake-up call must come in the form of disappearing mountains and expanding oil slicks.

Children, Animals, and the Imago Dei

April 26, 2010

I got to participate in two events on Friday and Saturday designed to bring children closer to creation. One took place in the inner city, the other (mostly) in the country. Both were signs of life and expressions of the imago dei, the image of God, granted to humans. They involved pit bulldogs, and wild birds, but not at the same time….

End Dogfighting in Atlanta

In the city, I stood at a press event with a dear brother, Ralph Hawthorne of the Humane Society of the United States, and his colleagues from animal stewardship organizations, to draw attention to an Atlanta program that aims to end dogfighting by helping urban youth train and care for their pit bulls, preparing them for showing instead of fighting. Professional dog-trainer Amber Burckhalter and a team of volunteers work with kids to learn wise animal stewardship, compassion, and responsibility. (more…)

Climate economics challenges left and right

April 13, 2010

There are four key questions about the climate system I’d love for God to just answer for us. Unfortunately, he has chosen to let us figure them out. Not exactly on our own, though: we have his gifts of reason, and he does appear to have made an intelligible universe. Ignorance and sin afflict us as we try to apply these gifts, but the situation isn’t hopeless. We’ve figured out tough problems before (what caused the Black Death? how can we determine our longitude at sea? why can’t we put metal in the microwave?). But climate problems we’re still working on…

My questions distill down to these four (and if anyone can find Bible references on these, let me know  😉  ):

  1. Is the climate changing in ways that (do, or will) threaten human flourishing?
  2. If it is, are we causing any (substantial) part of that climate change?
  3. If we are, could we do anything (substantial) about it?
  4. If we could, should we do anything about it? (What would it cost to act? What would it cost to not act?)

As you might expect, a lot of furious debate occurs around Question 4, which is really about economics. (more…)

Cell phones save lives, help the poor tend the garden better

April 12, 2010

Africa transformed by cell phonesCell phones have the potential to transform our existence, as any parent of a teenager knows. There are benefits and costs to making cell phones are central part of our lives. Some of the dangers are not well-known, but neither are some of the benefits. (more…)