The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

The GOP & Hopelessness

They’ll never get it.


Mike Beard, a Republican state representative from Minnesota, recently argued that coal mining should resume in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, in part because he believes God has created an earth that will provide unlimited natural resources.

“God is not capricious. He’s given us a creation that is dynamically stable,” Beard told MinnPost. “We are not going to run out of anything.”

Beard is currently in the midst of drafting legislation that would overturn Minnesota’s moratorium on coal-fired power plants, an effort that he backs due to his religious belief that God will provide limitless resources while ensuring that humans don’t destroy the planet trying to get them.

Drawing on his family’s childhood property in Pennsylvania, Beard explained to MinnPost his belief that while resource extraction might cause temporary agitation to the landscape, the effects wouldn’t be longterm.

Made me think of this, again.

The difference between theism and nontheism is not whether one does or does not believe in God. It is an issue that applies to everyone, including both Buddhists and nonBuddhists. Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one. We all are inclined to abdicate our responsibilities and delegate our authority to something outside ourselves. Nontheism is relaxing with the ambiguity and uncertainty of the present moment without reaching for anything to protect ourselves.

For those who want something to hold on to, life is even more inconvenient. From this point of view, theism is an addiction. We’re all addicted to hope — hope that the doubt and mystery will go away. This addiction has a painful effect on society: a society based on lots of people addicted to getting ground under their feet is not a very compassionate place.

And I won’t even attempt to go into the science that refutes Beard. Beard, to me, is one more example of how one can allow religion to not only close one’s mind, but lock it.

I don’t know if I’ve written this before, but I think that Beard and some other figures on the right — Sarah Palin is one, and George W. Bush another — represent a whole culture of American conservatism that I and others on the left find mystifying.

We rail against it as “anti-intellectualism”, but often find ourselves thunderstruck, and sometimes reduced to incoherent sputtering at its both its utter impenetrability and its unbreakable hold on its adherents.

I haven’t figured out what to call it, myself, but it’s a culture in which what you believe is more important than what you know, and what you know — or could know if you wanted to and tried to learn — can be dangerous if it undermines what you believe. Especially if it undermines  what you must believe.

When you have to believe something in order to get into heaven, and you will spend all of in hell if you don’t believe it or if you believe anything else, at some point you stop asking questions. You have to, if you don’t want to go to hell.

It is as though you are standing in a room, and at the other end of that room is the gate to hell. You arm is outstretched, and in your hand is the key to that gate. Every question asked and answered by scientific inquiry is a step that takes you closer to that gate. Ask one question, and you take a step closer. Answer another one and you take another step. Keep asking and you’re walking across the room. Before you know it, the key is in the lock, and one more question may turn the key.

I think P.I. Thomas got it about right when he called it a culture of belief.

The US is unique compared to the rest of Western world, which tends to accept evolution, but the comparison is less significant than the inference we can draw about the US and the associated impacts visible in our disdain for not only education, but also the well-educated, the informed: the predominant culture in the US is a belief culture.

By “belief,” I do not refer to religious faith per se. This discussion is about a belief culture that is secular, political and, ultimately, ideological, even when belief is connected to religious traditions and stances.

As Einstein offered, both belief and science have value, even as complements to each other: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” – especially as faith informs our ethics. But in the US, we are apt to misuse belief and ignore (or misunderstand) science when we need it most.

I guess that’s the difference (or one of many) between someone like me and someone like Beard. It goes back to what Chodron said about uncertainty.

Science, for all it’s experiments and scientific method, is loaded with uncertainty. It’s just that people who are OK with science are OK with uncertainty. Consider how the word theory means different things to different people. On evolution, someone who subscribes to the culture of belief might, while engaged in a debate over evolution, say with a the kind of finality that’s supposed to end a debate, “Well, evolution is just a theory.”

Now, someone like me might shrug and look perplexed, and say. “So?” That’s because that word, “theory”, means something different to me.

Scientific theories are explanations that are based on lines of evidence, enable valid predictions, and have been tested in many ways. In contrast, there is also a popular definition of theory—a “guess” or “hunch.” These conflicting definitions often cause unnecessary confusion about evolution.

And it means even more to a scientist.

The Theory of Evolution is a theory, but guess what? When scientists use the word theory, it has a different meaning to normal everyday use.1 That’s right, it all comes down to the multiple meanings of the word theory. If you said to a scientist that you didn’t believe in evolution because it was “just a theory”, they’d probably be a bit puzzled.

In everyday use, theory means a guess or a hunch, something that maybe needs proof. In science, a theory is not a guess, not a hunch. It’s a well-substantiated, well-supported, well-documented explanation for our observations.2 It ties together all the facts about something, providing an explanation that fits all the observations and can be used to make predictions. In science, theory is the ultimate goal, the explanation. It’s as close to proven as anything in science can be.

And as I understand it, science is also loaded with theories that were later disproven. I’m just about finished reading a fascinating book that came up in my Amazon recommendations, The Family Who Couldn’t Sleep: A Medical Mystery. It’s about many things, most of all science and the study of prion diseases.

At its center, however, is an Italian family that has for generations suffered a condition called Fatal Familial Insomnia.

Fatal familial insomnia is a rare prion disease that interferes with sleep and leads to deterioration of mental and motor functions. Death occurs within a few months to a few years.

Fatal insomnia includes an inherited or familial form, called fatal familial insomnia, due to a specific mutation in the PrPc gene. The disease can also occur spontaneously, without a genetic mutation. This form is called sporadic fatal insomnia. Fatal familial insomnia and sporadic fatal insomnia differ from other prion diseases because they affect predominantly one area of the brain, the thalamus, which influences sleep.

The disease usually begins between the ages of 40 and 60 but may begin in a person’s late 30s. At first, people may have minor difficulties falling asleep and occasional muscle twitching, spasms, and stiffness. Eventually, they cannot sleep. Occasionally, the sleep signs are difficult to detect. Other changes include a rapid heart rate and dementia. Death usually occurs about 7 to 36 months after symptoms begin.

The diagnosis is suggested by typical symptoms and a family history of the disease and can be confirmed by genetic testing. No treatment is available.

The author starts the story where it began for the Italian family at the heart of the story, in Venice, around the mid 1700’s, when the disease was little understood and came to be known as “the family curse.” He parallels the disease’s progression through the family with the progress of scientific discovery — from the study of kuru in Papau New Guinea, to the discovery of prions, the scrapie and “mad cow” epidemics in Great Britain during the 1700s and mid 80’s, to the present day.

At the beginning of the book, the doctors are not much more knowledgable about the disease than are the priests who stepped in once the doctors have run out of ideas. There isn’t much difference between them in terms of knowledge and practices.

By the end of the book, the priests have long since stepped into the background, except perhaps for the role of comforter to those who suffer from the disease or have to watch their loved ones perish. And by the end of the end of the book, science has got down several wrong roads, following various theories. It has not yet come upon a cure, but it has come closer to the truth — about the cause of the disease, and others like it — not just by continuing to ask “Why?”, but also through a willingness to say “We don’t know,” and continue looking for answers.

That, to me seems to be the difference, or at least an important difference between science and religion as practiced by some. Science is at once comfortable with uncertainty, and dedicated to unraveling mysteries through constant inquiry. In other words, science says “We don’t know. Therefore we must inquire further.” Religion says “We don’t know. Therefor, God.” And inquiry end, unless one’s faith is broad and or nuanced enough to allow further inquiry, strong enough to withstand some of its beliefs being unfounded, and flexible enough to receive new information and incorporate it.

Beard, in Chodron’s terminology, is counting on that babysitter being available to take care of us and fix everything.

Call me crazy, but here’s how I understand things: All we have is here, now, and each other. Whatever needs taking care of, that’s what we’ve got to work with.

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