Wednesday, April 16, 2014


George Orwell wrote about them. Ayn Rand wrote about them. So did Ray Bradbury. And Suzanne Collins. Likewise Alan Moore and David Lloyd. Even George Lucas, Walter Murch, and Ben Bova. And even one of my favorite bands, Muse, sings about them. That’s right. I’m talking about those dystopian futures we all fear coming to pass. Books like 1984, Atlas Shrugged, Fahrenheit 451, Hunger Games, V for Vendetta, and THX 1138. One thing all these writings have in common is that they were also made into movies. We hate what the world has become in these books and films, but we love the heroic characters that attempt to break free from that world. Now we have a new author, Veronica Roth, bringing us the riveting book Divergent. It too has become a popular film. I just saw this movie and found it to be both compelling and very well made.

Divergent and the other books mentioned present to us bizarre futures where the powers that be attempt to suppress the people for the supposed good of mankind. Typically there are one or more characters that understand the cruelty of what is happening while most other people simply believe the conditions they are living under are somehow normal. The insightful ones then find themselves having to fight the system to break free of the iron grip holding them.

In Divergent, we see a future 100 years after a great war. The people who gain power after this war decide that society needs to be divided up by five predominant personality traits. They are: Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). Upon testing, the great majority of people fall heavily into one of these categories. But occasionally a Divergent comes along. That is a person who exhibits multiple traits. The story focuses on one such person, Beatrice (Tris). She finds herself being a target of the powers that be because it is feared that such people could disrupt the supposed peace that exists by keeping the five factions separated.

Interestingly, I never hear anyone who has seen a movie like Divergent or the other ones mentioned above say, “Wow, I sure would like to live in a society like that one.” We all recognize that a power structure that attempts to suppress the most talented among us is simply wrong. We Americans know that freedom is essential for letting each individual’s light shine during the short years we have here on Planet Earth. Allowing those lights to shine benefits us all. Yet, in reality, we move ever closer to those dystopian societies we so despise. All across this great land, governments at all levels are conspiring to suppress those that have something to offer their fellow citizens. This is done to bolster the egos of our leaders, to help their connected friends, or to simply protect cronies from competition. And the government blatantly justifies its actions with phony excuses like, “We’re doing it to protect the public.”

If you don’t believe what I am saying, then look at some of the stories at the Institute for Justice and the Goldwater Institute Web sites. Warning: they’ll make you mad. Yet they are stories we all need to be aware of.

Also, go see the movie Divergent. But don’t just come away saying, “I sure am glad I don’t live in a society like that one.” Rather, take action by supporting those organizations that are fighting to prevent those societies from becoming reality. The future you save could very well be your own.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Bart Ehrman / Kyle Butt Debate: A Commentary

I love a good debate. The exchange of ideas is exciting to me. That is why I went to a local debate Friday evening at our local university. Bart Ehrman and Kyle Butt faced off on the topic of whether or not the pain and suffering that exists in our world denies the existence of the Christian God. I personally didn’t expect much from the debaters since I believe the existence of pain and suffering neither supports nor denies the existence of the Biblical God. I believe the existence of Jehovah is best understood by determining the consistency and reliability of the Bible and how it accords with the world as we know it. This is the approach I take in my latest book, “God Is: Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God”. Yet, to my surprise, there was much of interest discussed.

Bart Ehrman, PhD, is an American New Testament scholar, currently the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kyle Butt, MA, currently serves in the Bible department at Apologetics Press and as editor of Discovery magazine. He speaks frequently around the country at youth rallies, lectureships, Gospel meetings, etc. Both Ehrman and Butt have written extensively in their areas of interests. Bart Ehrman is a former Christian, but now an agnostic. Kyle Butt is a Christian affiliated with the Church of Christ. From that information I’ll let you decide which position each took in the debate.

Although much was said during the debate, I want to focus my comments on just a few topics. A fair amount of time was devoted to discussing the various reasons that pain and suffering exist. Ehrman pointed out how the Biblical writers did not always agree on the source of pain and suffering. Some said it was due to God’s punishment, some said it was God’s testing us, some said it was redemptive suffering, and so on. Butt countered that it was a fact that suffering came about for many different reasons and the Biblical writers in toto correctly point out all those reasons. Ehrman countered that while that was true to some extent, it was also true that some of the Biblical writers had disagreements that could not be reconciled. For example, some writers believed that no pain and suffering comes directly from God. Rather he simply allows it via Satan and the evil forces of the world. Other writers clearly state that God directly caused suffering for those that he felt needed it.

Kyle Butt began to get the upper hand when the topic of moral absolutes was discussed. Butt kept quoting from Ehrman’s books and debates where Ehrman seemed to be making a definitive moral statement as proof that Ehrman really didn’t believe in moral relativism. It was obvious that Ehrman was becoming defensive and slipped a bit with his responses.

Butt kept pushing to get Ehrman to answer the question, “If someone says that they are just going to live for themselves, not caring how they harm others in the process, how can you say they are wrong if there is no objective morality?” Ehrman tried to turn the question back on Butt by asking him what the source of objective morality was. Butt said it comes from God. When asked how he knew the mind of God, Butt said by the only way one can know the mind of anyone: the person tells you what they are thinking. Of course, the Bible would be God’s way of doing this. Ehrman then asked if the source of objective morality was God, then was it okay for man to do all the things God did when dealing with people. When Ehrman didn’t get a straight answer to this question, he became visibly frustrated and failed to respond well to Butt’s counter questions.

Later in the debate Ehrman recuperated and made the most cogent statement about objective morality of the evening. I paraphrase: “The reason morality is subjective is because we are all subjects. If there is such a thing as objective morality that stems from God, then why is it that Christians don’t seem to know what it is? Christians do not agree on what objective morality entails. So, of what good is objective morality if we humans cannot agree on what it is? It still ends up being subjective.”

That was the statement that I was hoping Ehrman would get around to making. Indeed, if we humans are incapable of agreeing on what constitutes objective morality, then it is of no use to us. We still end up viewing morality subjectively. Fortunately, we humans think enough alike such that for many areas of morality we can get a super majority consensus, at least within the confines of nations or communities. Things like murder, rape, theft, and so forth, are considered wrong my large numbers of people. However, there remain many areas that are stark gray. Things like polygamy, alcohol consumption, gambling, etc.

So, does this mean that nothing is objective? No. Reality is objective. Nature behaves a certain way that can be discovered. Events occur that can be recorded. Everything that has happened in the past is objectively true. It cannot change. We may never know everything that has occurred, but what actually happened is objectively true whether we know it or not.

Morality is somewhat similar. To achieve a particular outcome, there will always be a best action to take to achieve it. When attempting to achieve a laudable goal, actions taken to reach that goal can be defined as moral. However, things can get complicated rather quickly. One person might point out that the goal itself is immoral. Others may point out that not all actions to achieve a moral goal are themselves moral. In other words, the ends do not justify the means. We also face the problem of not having all the information or the time we need to make the absolute best moral decision, so we may have to settle for something less than the best. Relational complexity plays into this also. So, it seems to me that moral decision making is very much a situational issue. Many factors come into play. I always enjoyed the TV show “The Practice” because the writers did an excellent job pointing out the differing perspectives of right and wrong in many different situations.

While I mostly agreed with Ehrman’s positions in the debate, Butt did a great job defending his position, failing only occasionally. There was one topic discussed, however, where I disagreed with both debaters. While Ehrman believes there is no moral imperative to help those who are suffering and in need, he truly believes we should lend our support. In fact, he said we should help as much as we can as often as we can. Butt agrees with this, but believes it is in fact a moral imperative. I disagree with both.

Moral imperatives aside, I do not believe we need to help those in need “as much as we can as often as we can.” This makes no sense, and in reality, very very few, if any, people actually do this since we still buy our luxury items rather than help someone. First, on what rational basis can we say that we owe anything to anyone if we were not responsible for their existence or the problems they are facing? Parents are responsible for rearing their children because they were responsible for their existence. If a person accidentally harms another person, they are still responsible for aiding them to the extent of the injuries caused by the accident. That is why we have insurance; to avoid bankruptcy should that unfortunate event occur. If a child is born destitute in another country, I am not responsible. If a tornado injures a family in Kansas, I am not responsible. In other words, neither the free will decisions of others nor the actions of nature place a burden of responsibility on those that have nothing to do with the situation.

That said, I still like to help people. Why? Because I want to live in a society where people help each other when facing unfortunate circumstances. I cannot rationally expect others to help if I am not willing to help. Of course, there are so many needs, everyone cannot help every cause. But we can choose some individually. But the way we help and the amount we help is totally our decision. Not that of others. No one should call me out because they personally disagree with how I help, whether it’s the person that believes there is a moral imperative to give 10% or the person that does not believe in moral imperatives but still insists I should help as much as possible as often as possible.

That’s my two cents. And that’s all I am willing to give to this topic.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Britain From A to Z: S


One of the places we visited on our tour of Britain was an old slate mine in Northwest Wales. This is the site of the former Dinorwig Quarry that closed back in 1969. We were not looking forward to this visit as we thought it would be boring. We were wrong. It turned out to be a very interesting place to visit.

Dinorwig Quarry

Apparently the slate industry in Wales began during the Roman period and grew slowly until the early 1700’s. Then it grew rapidly until the late 1800’s. The Dinorwig Quarry and another nearby quarry, Penrhyn, became the two largest slate quarries in the world. For various reasons, the slate industry began a decline in the 1900’s leading to the closure of most of the larger quarries in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Dinorwig Quarry with Slate in Foreground

What is left of the Dinorwig Quarry is now a slate museum. Part of the tour took place in a small auditorium where a gentleman showed us how slate used to be split manually using a hammer and chisel. When asked who would like to try it, many people on our tour volunteered our son Andrew since they knew he could speak the Welsh language. I took a video of this event and present it here for your viewing pleasure.

There were many buildings with a plethora of equipment leftover from the slate production days. All this was self-guided and there was more to see than we had time to look at. Here are a couple of photos.

The UK’s economy is based on many things, but as we rode through the countryside in Scotland, England, and Wales, it appeared that much of it was based on sheep, goats, cattle, and horses. But given that the UK has the sixth largest economy in the world (based on GDP), it is obviously based on more than that. I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out what those are.

Outside Rhayader, Wales

Outside Rhayader, Wales

Rhayader, Wales

The Cotwolds, England