Of course I'm liberal, I believe in liberty.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Faith Versus Reason

I often talk of faith and reason as if they were polar opposites, but are they? Or is the interaction between faith and reason more complex than just two different approaches to life and solving the problems life presents?

Those on the religious right who push Creationism as "Creation Science" or "Intelligent Design" often claim that we believe in reason only because we have faith in reason. Take these comments from Evolution of Truth:
You, like most non-believers, and as I once did, take so much pride that your beliefs are based on reason and yet never even realize how much your beliefs are based in faith:
  • faith that life started on its own against incredible odds when this can never be proven and has never since been observed to happen,

  • faith that your very limited life experience and knowledge is all that is required to answer the greatest question mankind has ever considered,

  • faith that our 3.5 pound brains and five senses even give us the tools to answer such a question,

  • faith that your understandings of God and spirituality are correct even though they are based on opinions and are in contradiction to experiences reported by millions of others,

  • faith that reason is the only means by which to acquire knowledge and insight.

While I find this line of reasoning very seductive, ultimately I find I must reject it. I believe in reason and the scientific method not because I have some faith that cannot be confirmed but because reason has proven its worth. We see the success of the scientific method all around us and, as opposed to the natural world, we know where science came from.

But what about the other way around? Is it reasonable to believe in faith? Here the answer must be Yes, faith works and we can prove it. Placeboes work. Every time a new medicine is tested its performance must be compared to that of a simple sugar pill. I believe that other forms of faith also work, such as hope, optimism and confidence.

I'll talk about how all this effects my views on politics some time in the near future...

Remember When Christ was Still In Christmas?

Me neither. Not really. When I was a child Christmas was about Santa Claus, holly, Christmas lights, presents, family and "peace on Earth with good will toward men". Sure, there was a child in a manger and a little drummer boy to go along with Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman. Many Christians complain we've left the Christ out of Christmas, which is fine, but the go on and act as if this is a recent phenomena. It isn't. Atrios has an intersting post where he quotes Henry Ford:
And it has become pretty general. Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth. Easter they will have the same difficulty in finding Easter cards that contain any suggestion that Easter commemorates a certain event. There will be rabbits and eggs and spring flowers, but a hint of the Resurrection will be hard to find. Now, all this begins with the designers of the cards.

"And it has become..." Even back in 1921 they acted as if this was something new. Today they continue to act as if this is something new. This is what romantics do, they seek back to a world of yesterday that never existed. Their assumptions are false, thus so are their conclusions.

Friday, December 24, 2004

One Ring To Rule Them All

Today my family and I are going to sit down and watch all three Lord Of The Rings movies back to back to back in their full extended version glory. That's a solid eleven hours and twenty-five minutes of movie to watch. We've been wanting to do this since the first movie came out; should be fun.

Now here's a painful question for people like myself who love LOTR but seriously dislike our current president: how large of a role did the LOTR movies play in Bush's reelection? Like the LOTR, Bush continually invokes the romantic notion of Good versus Evil. He romantically speaks of the high moral values we once had and rejects the low morals of the modern age. Could he have asked for a better propaganda vehicle than the world wide embrace of Tolkien's romantic rejection of modernity?

Reason versus faith. Modernity versus romance. "Our better days are ahead" versus "our best days have passed." This is what the fight is all about; this is the battle I fear we are loosing.

David Brin, my favorite Sf author, has a couple of great essays on this subject: the romantic, unEnlightened views of Tolkien in "We Hobbits are a Merry Folk", and "The Real Culture War" where he claims "It's not about 'left-vs-right' or 'morality' or any other 20th Century cliché. The issue is Modernity and how to deal with a new century of change."

Thursday, December 23, 2004

36 Hours of The Moderate Liberal

My first post was about 36 hours ago and so far I've received three comments and one trackback. That may not sound like much but it's pretty exciting to me. I honestly wasn't expecting to see any evidence of readership for at least a week of constant blogging, and that was on the assumption this site actually succeeded.

The blog still looks like .... well, let's just say it doesn't look as nice as I'd like. I'll probably be fiddling with the look; at a minimum I want to add a left side column with a blog roll. So far I've figured out how to use trackbacks, which are less trivial than I expected, and how to change the look of my blockquotes. It's a start.

I also learned today that Safari can spell check as you type; didn't know any web browser could do that. Score one for Apple. For me this is huge, my typed word in its natural state is atrocious. (That would have been "atrocias" without the power of modern technology!)

My plan is to write at least one "big" entry a day, something original that isn't a comment on other blogs, something that others will hopefully find interesting or at least spawn a little thought. In addition I'll write several smaller entries that are largely links and comments on other blogs. For a while at least I'll focus on blogs that support trackback; this is the only method I can think of to advertise The Moderate Liberal. Well, I could go over to Kos, Atrios and MyDD just to post "read my blog", "read my blog" over and over again, but I think we all agree that would be a bad idea on many levels.

Anyway, for the two or three people who may actually be reading this, thanks for dropping by! Hopefully you'll drop by again some time and decided the site is worth a bookmark.

Update: Yikes, I just saw what this site looks like on IE; trust me, it looks much better on Safari. Let's see if I can get the right hand column back to the side of the postings....

America is not a Christian Nation

Lindsay Beyerstein over at Majikthise is contemplating the question is America a Christian nation?
One might argue that America is a Christian country simply because a plurality of its citizens self-identify as Christians. The religious right is either making a much more substantial claim or committing a logical fallacy.

Theocrats often use the "Christian country" claim as a key premise in arguments of the following form:

(p1) The United States of America is a Christian country.

(p2) Christianity abhors usury.

(p3) Christian countries must not permit anything abhorrent to Christianity.

(C ) Therefore, the USA must not permit usury.

Suppose (p1) means “Christians comprise at least a plurality of American citizens.” On this weak reading, the argument derails, even if we grant (p2) and (p3). So what if a majority of Americans are Christians? What matters is whether a majority of Americans vote to ban usury and whether the proposed anti-usury legislation is constitutional. The weak version of (p1) doesn’t do any work. If that’s all the “Christian nation” claim amounts to, the argument reduces to a civics lesson.

Consider a stronger reading of (p1): “The constitution of the United States of America requires that laws conform to Christian doctrine.” Alternatively, “The constitution forbids any laws that violate Christian doctrine”; or “The constitution requires that we pass all and only those required by Christian doctrine.”

The sample argument makes a certain amount of sense on the strong reading of (p1). The strong reading has a significant drawback, however—namely, that (p1) comes out false. The constitution just doesn’t say anything like that.


Well argued like the philosopher she is. But there is a more direct argument. On June 10, 1797 John Adams signed the "Treaty of peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli, of Barbary," a treaty negotiated by George Washington and ratified by congress. This treaty had a line that was not considered radical or controversial at the time, but is quite interesting today:

...As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion...

At the time this passage was required because Barbary would not deal with Christian nations so our Founding Fathers had to put this core difference* between the United States and the European nations in writing.

This nation inherited its Christian thoughts, laws and traditions, but it was not founded on Christianity. America was founded on what was at the time a competing philosophy, The Enlightenment. Unfortunately, I believe these two philosophies are competing yet again. Let's hope the reigning champ maintains her title.

* Yes, I know Democracy was also a core difference. I said "this" core not "the" core. Sheesh, the little voices in my head sure like to argue.

How To Break the Cycle

Matthew Yglesias links to an article in the LA Times about gang violence in LA and wonders if the problem is so frightening, so serious that "squishy liberal ideas like 'universal preschool, and all-day kindergarten' are going to ameliorate it."

By themselves, these "squishy" liberal ideas won't stop the cycle of gang violence. What we have is the classic difference between breaking a cycle versus preventing the cycle from forming in the first place. It is fairly easy to prevent these cycles from forming; give every child a solid education, make sure jobs are available for all adults, practice community policing, etc. While gangs occasionally form in middle class neighborhoods they are easily dealt with before the problem gets out of hand, before the cycle of gang violence forms. We need to implement more "squishy" liberal ideas to prevent these problems from forming.

It also helps to have the economy grow in a nice, reasonable and boring rate. Economies that lurch to dramatic highs only to crash to violent lows just kill the poorer families. Each time the economy stalls a few more of the poorest among us fall out of the system. Steady economic growth supplemented by reasonable safety nets will do more to prevent the future formation of gang, not to mention the homeless.

But breaking a cycle that already exists is much harder than mere prevention and I don't see any clear and obvious solutions. My guess is something truly draconian is needed to break the cycle. But for me the take-home lesson is don't allow these cycles to form in the first place.

Happy New Thanks Christmas Day!

Atrios makes a good point that the much recently maligned phrase "Happy Holidays" not only includes various religious and ethnic holidays, but also includes Thanksgiving and New Years. Even Mr. Bill himself celebrates three holidays during the holiday season.
Haloscan commenting and trackback have been added to this blog.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Iraq war loses support

Kevin Drum points out that American's support for the war has gradually declined in near linear fashion since the beginning and has the graph to prove it. I find it interesting that the graph levels out for a few months just before the election and then--once the election is over--quickly jumps to about where it would have been if it had continued in a straight line. Apparently, the election itself influenced people's opinion of the war just as much as the war influenced people's opinion of the election.

Josh Marshall makes the same point with deeper explanation.

A letter to a Christian Fundamentalist

A few months ago my cousin Kim and I sent emails back and forth dealing with religion and the upcoming election. Kim is a born-again Christian Fundamentalist who moved to Texas to be with others who share her beliefs. I thought I'd share one of my letters.

I won't post her letter here, but I should point out she included two biblical quotes to support outlawing abortion and same-sex marriages:

Exodus 20:13  You shall not murder
Levitics18:22  Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman, that is detestable.

Here is my response:

I've been meaning to write you for months now but keep chickening out due to a deep inner conflict. On one hand I am deeply and extremely happy for you. For the past several years you have truly known peace, love and happiness; the power of faith cannot be denied, it is a wonderful and beautiful force. I never want you to lose that.

On the other hand, I believe this world is at war between the forces of religious fundamentalism and enlightened reason. Enlightened reason must win. It isn't a coincidence we refer to the last time religious fundamentalism ruled as the Dark Ages. Religious fundamentalists brought down the twin towers. Enlightened reason must, must win.

There need be no conflict between enlightened reason and religion. Many of the founding fathers were deeply religious, but they all believed in The Enlightenment, the base philosophy this country was founded on, the principle of open discourse that lead to democracy, capitalism and science. But they were not fundamentalists.

Even if the Bible is perfect, no human who reads it is. We decide which lines to emphasize. We interpret meaning. We humans decide what biblical laws should translate to modern laws and what should be left to the individual. We humans are very prone to cherry-picking those passages that agree with us.

Fundamentalism forgets those human fallacies and places absolute meaning on human interpretations, with no tolerance for disagreement or open discourse. Fundamentalism is the opposite of enlightened reason and at it's modern core is a backlash to [the] triumph of The Enlightenment and everything this country stands for.

Exodus 20:3 You shall have no other gods before me.
Leviticus 19:19 ... and you must not wear a garment made of two different kinds of fabric.

The Bible can easily be interpreted to outlaw other religions, mixed fabric garments, homosexuality and murder. We humans decide where to draw the line between rights of individuals who do not agree with us and what laws are best for society. Should all be forced to live by the laws of strict Islam, Buddhism or Christianity? Or should we only pass laws that prevent one individual from hurting or denying the freedom of another?

Well, I should stop now. I'm sorry if you find any of this offensive; I tried very, very hard to be both honest and sensitive to your views. I think I'll end with my favorite quote from the man who should have been running against Bush (if only he campaigned in Iowa!), General Wesley Clark:

“You will determine whether rage or reason guides the United States in the struggle to come. You will choose whether we are known for revenge or compassion. You will choose whether we, too, will kill in the name of God, or whether in His name, we can find a higher civilization and a better means of settling our differences."

Why Moderate Liberal?

So why did I call this blog The Moderate Liberal? Can one be both moderate and liberal? I believe so. In fact, I believe a true liberal almost has to be a moderate to be true to his or her convictions. Here is the relevant dictionary definitions of moderate and liberal:
  1. Being within reasonable limits; not excessive or extreme: a moderate price.
  2. Not violent or subject to extremes; mild or calm; temperate: a moderate climate.
  3. Opposed to radical or extreme views or measures, especially in politics or religion.
One who holds or champions moderate views or opinions, especially in politics or religion.

    1. Not limited to or by established, traditional, orthodox, or authoritarian attitudes, views, or dogmas; free from bigotry.
    2. Favoring proposals for reform, open to new ideas for progress, and tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others; broad-minded.
    3. Of, relating to, or characteristic of liberalism.
    4. Liberal Of, designating, or characteristic of a political party founded on or associated with principles of social and political liberalism, especially in Great Britain, Canada, and the United States.
  1. A person with liberal ideas or opinions.
  2. Liberal A member of a Liberal political party.
So the question becomes how can one be an extremist and liberal at the same time. How can one simultaneously be an extremist while also being tolerant of the ideas and behavior of others and broad-minded? I don't believe one can.

I'm a liberal because I believe all people deserve liberty, because I believe real problems can be solved, because I believe concentrated power must be held in check no matter in what form it takes and because I believe it is our moral obligation to pass on to our children a better world -- with better opportunities for all -- than what we received from our parents.

I'm a moderate because I realize change is difficult, because 90% of all suggested solutions stink, because pragmatism trumps ideology1 and because we can't solve the next generation's problems today. In my idealized America we'd have a liberal House trying to solve all the problems, a conservative Senate tossing away all the bad ideas while perfecting the good ones and as president we'd have, well, me (hey, it's my fantasy.)

There has been much talk since the reelection of Bush of whether the Democratic party should move to the left or right, but I believe this misses the point. We don't need to move to the right, but we need to tolerate the right. We don't need to accept religious fundamentalism, but we need to tolerate it while simultaneously rejecting their intolerance of us. It isn't easy, but I believe it is the correct thing to do politically; I know it is the morally correct thing to do. I'm sure I'll talk much more about this in the future.

UPDATE: editted, detail added to justify front page link.