Advantages of Getting Older

I got some reading glasses today.

However, they’re not actually for reading. I can do that fine except with paperback Hebrew dictionaries, whose print is almost microscopic. I gave up on those a long time ago, and got a magnifying glass for them.

The reading glasses are for a tablet computer whose small screen gives me eyestrain. Apart from that problem, it’s a nice little gadget. Hence, the reading glasses. I’ve got another pair for distance.

But the milestone made me realize that getting older has advantages.

I won’t kid you: it’s not all good. Lately I’ve had tennis elbow, and there’s not much to do except ice it. The gym seems to tire me out more than it used to. As for those damn kids and their awful music, I just want them to get off my lawn!

But I’m an optimistic person, so I try to look at the bright side of things. Here are some advantages of getting older:

  • You’ve been wrong often enough that you’re skeptical.

You want to see evidence before you’ll believe outlandish claims. The exception is politics, where unless you’re careful, you’ll be as gullible as everyone else.

  • You’ve been wrong often enough that you’re more forgiving of others who get things wrong.

If someone as rational as you could make ludicrous mistakes, then you’ve got to give other people a break, too.

  • You remember how stupid and ignorant you were when you were younger.

You understand why a lot of Millennials are the same way. You grew out of it. You hope that they will, too.

  • You remember how stupid and ignorant older people seemed when you were younger.

You understand why a lot of Millennials see you that way now. As the American novelist Mark Twain said: “When I was 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

  • You realize that humanity is a giant, roaring furnace of emotion topped by a tiny, flickering candle of intelligence.

People who scream and jabber usually aren’t trying to convince you of anything. They’re just venting their anger about Heaven knows what. They direct the anger at whoever’s handy. To them, that person or group symbolizes all the unhappiness in their own lives. You’ve got to calm them down before you can reason with them.

Seriously, it’s a miracle that the human race has survived this long. But it has. Either God loves us, or we have incredible luck, or we have hidden virtues.

In any case, it’s cause for optimism. Even if you need glasses to read it.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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I Did Something Stupid Today

I did something stupid today. I got mad at my phone.

And that’s a big part of what’s wrong with the world.

Not the fact that I got mad. I’m obviously not that powerful. And thank goodness that I’m not: If I were, at least half of the drivers on the road would have been vaporized by now.

But my phone continued playing some music after I’d turned it off.

So I uttered a curse word, picked up the phone, and held its power button to shut it down completely.

That’ll teach it. Damn phone. It’ll think twice before crossing me again.

Of course, that was all pretty stupid. Even though my phone is a sophisticated electronic device, it’s an inanimate object. It neither tries to help me nor to frustrate me. It just does what it’s designed to do.

But I was annoyed, and my phone was there, so I lashed out at my phone.

And that illustrates the problem.

When we’re unhappy, angry, or frustrated, we look for someone or something to blame. We don’t look at ourselves, because we’re sure that we couldn’t be the problem. We look elsewhere. And we find the villain:

  • The phone
  • The microwave oven (yes, I’ve had stern conversations with it, too)
  • Politicians
  • Celebrities
  • Society
  • The economic system
  • People who disagree with us

And it’s usually none of those things. So we ignore the real problem and we start screaming about things that have nothing to do with it.

Not only do we often falsely accuse entire groups of people; we also fail to address the real causes of our unhappiness.

Then the people we’ve accused get angry about our accusations.

And we get even unhappier because they won’t stop making us unhappy, which they can’t stop doing because they didn’t do it in the first place.

We can at least try to do better. Very often, as Shakespeare observed:

“The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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Democracy for Dinner

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.” — Winston Churchill

It’s dinner time. You and your spouse decide to vote on dinner. Happily, you both love pizza with anchovies. The vote is unanimous. You’re both very happy with the result.

A new couple moves in next door. You invite them over for dinner. Happily, they also love pizza. But they don’t like anchovies. So you get pizza with pepperoni. Everyone is happy with the result.

Another new couple moves in across the street. You invite them to join you and the other couple for dinner. Unfortunately, they don’t like pizza. But they like hamburgers, and nobody objects. So you order hamburgers. Everyone is satisfied with the result.

A new family moves into the house down the street. At least, you think it’s a family. There are always strange cars parked in front of their house. You hear them come and go in the middle of the night. But you want to be inclusive, so you invite them to dinner — all six of them. Unfortunately, they don’t like pizza or hamburgers. They like tuna casserole, but nobody else likes it. So you take a vote, and it’s six to six. You end up ordering Chinese food. Nobody is very happy, but nobody is very upset.

Break-ins and vandalism start to appear on your previously peaceful street. Nobody can be sure who’s doing it.

A new group of people moves into another house. Unfortunately, they’re members of an obscure religious sect that believes dinner is the work of the Devil. They assume that anyone who eats dinner is a demon and should be thrown off a building. You and your neighbors decide it’s safer just to stop eating dinner. Nobody is happy — not even the sect members, who suspect that you’re all simply trying to hide your demonic tendencies.

You think about calling the police, but to tell them what? That you’re afraid of your new neighbors?

You start looking for a house in another neighborhood.

We tend to think that democracy is always a good thing. But what’s needed for it to work? Are there situations in which it can’t work?

The problems with dinner suggest that democracy requires:

  • General agreement about basic values and rules.
  • Willingness of minorities to accept majority decisions.
  • Willingness of the majority to enforce its decisions, values, and rules.
  • Willingness of the majority to accommodate minority values in reasonable ways — and only in reasonable ways.
  • Commitment by everyone to resolve disputes peacefully according to the rules.

If you haven’t got those things, then you can’t have democracy — at least, you can’t have it for very long.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Foreword Reviews called it “intriguing and vital to living.”

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Touching on Joe Biden

I try to keep this blog non-political, and this blog post is no exception.

It’s neither to support Joe Biden nor to denounce him. It’s just about my own personal experiences and thoughts.

As most people know, Biden is preparing to run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. He was Obama’s vice president, so he’s got that going for him. And he was a U.S. Senator for 36 years. He might be a little long in the tooth, but so are Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

However, Biden’s a bit “handsy.” He apparently touches other people, especially women, a little too freely. And since he’s one of the dread ilk who cause all the world’s problems, he has no excuses for his behavior. It’s not like he … well, I’ll stop there to avoid getting overly political. :: cough :: Bleach. :: cough ::

So what’s my take on Biden’s malfeasance?

First, some people are just handsy. As far as I can tell, it’s usually neither sexual nor even about power. They just want to touch you, whether as part of how they communicate or as a misguided attempt to show empathy. Many elderly people (Biden is 76) are like that.

Personally, I don’t like people touching me uninvited. I once had a boss who did it. He was a good guy, a retired Army sergeant, and it was just his way. I put up with it for three or four times. The next time he did it, I gently and without accusation asked him to stop it. He did. We got along fine. He just didn’t know that it made me uncomfortable.

Second, of course, sometimes it’s not just being handsy. It’s about sex, or power, or both. I’ve been in that situation, too.

When I was working on Capitol Hill in my 20s, I attended a party where some federal agency high-up put his hands on me and offered me a job. The principal qualification was to be his love bunny during off hours. Ahem. I politely declined, told him I wasn’t interested, and wished him well. Problem solved. I don’t have flashbacks, didn’t need therapy for it, and almost never think about it. Christine Blasey Ford I am not (for one thing, I didn’t make it up).

From afar, it looks to me like Biden falls into the first group. Handsy but basically innocent. It could be worse than that, but he doesn’t give off that kind of predatory vibe.

If it were up to me, I wouldn’t disqualify Biden solely because he’s handsy. Let him campaign for the nomination. If he knows that being handsy hurts his chances but he can’t stop doing it, then it tells the Democrats (and everyone else) something important about him. If he stops doing it, then it shows that he’s learned his lesson. People can evaluate him on other criteria.

What Democrats want to do about the situation is up to them.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Do WMDs Make Religion Too Risky?

On his blog, philosopher Eric Kaplan posed a serious question (paraphrased here):

If our weapons can destroy all life on earth, can we still afford to believe in a God who plays favorites?

People sometimes claim that God is “… ‘my guy (or lady) and definitely not yours.'”

A minister made that kind of claim to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War: “Mr. President, God is on our side.”

Lincoln had the right response: “Let us pray simply that we are on His.

The belief that “God is on our side” is dangerous in a world of proliferating nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.

But we shouldn’t confuse the primitive idea of God with the more rational idea of a transcendent God who defines the moral framework of the universe. That confusion leads thoughtful people to reject the idea of God altogether. The argument goes like this:

  1. Belief in a transcendent God is unsupportable.
  2. Belief in a transcendent God causes war.
  3. Weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) make war too dangerous to risk.
  4. Therefore, belief in a transcendent God is too dangerous to risk.

Let’s examine the argument. For simplicity, I’ll define WMDs just as nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

Premise 1: Belief in God is unsupportable.

Premise 1 depends on what we mean by “support.” On logical grounds, premise 1 is almost true by definition. If God is transcendent, then we can’t understand anything positive about Him: an affirmation of faith amounts to “I believe in blank.” Thinkers such as Maimonides have found no satisfying answers beyond what’s called “negative theology:” we can’t know what God is, but we can know what He isn’t. [1]

However, if you take a wider view of “support,” then belief in God is indeed supportable. Whatever it means, it can often:

  • Strengthen people’s determination to act morally.

If you think that God will hold you accountable for your actions, it’s easier to do good and avoid doing harm. That’s why Maimonides regarded such accountability as “a necessary belief.”

  • Strengthen people’s confidence in the value of life.

If you are fearful or unhappy, belief in Divine love and justice can ease your suffering, reassure you, and help you move forward with your life.

  • Strengthen people’s ability to form peaceful, stable, happy communities.

Like lower animals, humans tend to trust, help, and cooperate with others who they perceive as their genetic kin. Unlike lower animals, humans unconsciously use other people’s beliefs as a sign of kinship. A widely-shared belief in God can promote social harmony.

Theism amounts to a denial that only the physical universe exists. [2] Believers claim to sense that there’s “something more:” a moral and spiritual dimension. They can’t explain it and can’t prove it — any more than logical positivists could explain love or justice, both of which are quite real. Such things can neither be proven nor disproven scientifically.

Premise 2: Belief in God causes wars.

Premise 2 observes that belief in God can also strengthen people’s determination to act immorally. As physicist (and avowed atheist) Steven Weinberg argued:

“With or without [religion] you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

He’s 95 percent right. It’s “the missing five percent” that’s his blind spot.

What good people need to do evil things isn’t religion: it’s a belief that their actions are morally right. That belief might have nothing to do with religion. Countless wars, atrocities, and mass murders have been justified on secular and “scientific” grounds.

Nazis waged war and committed mass murder in the name of racial purity and Lebensraum. Communists waged war and committed mass murder to speed up what they saw as the inexorable progress of history. Wars occur even among lower primates such as chimps. Stanford University biologist Robert Sapolsky noted that:

“The male chimps in one group systematically killed every neighboring male, kidnapped the surviving females, and expanded their territory. Similar attacks occur in chimp populations elsewhere; a 2014 study found that chimps are about 30 times as likely to kill a chimp from a neighboring group as to kill one of their own.”

Sapolsky added:

“Is it at all surprising that humans, who share more than 98 percent of their DNA with chimps, also divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’ and go to war over these categories?”

War is caused by human nature, not by belief in God. However, unlike lower animals, we are not enslaved by our aggressive impulses. Even if it’s difficult, we can override them and resolve conflicts peacefully. Enlightened religious faith can help us do it.

Premise 3: WMDs make war too dangerous to risk.

In the 12th century, it was the crossbow that made war too dangerous to risk. Since then, people have made the same claim about many new weapons.

But in perspective, our era’s “weapons of mass destruction” really are different. Earlier weapons could never have wiped out all life on earth. Our weapons might not do it either, but they could.

That said, nuclear weapons have been around for 75 years and haven’t been used since 1945. We’ve had a few close calls, like the 1962 Cuban missile crisis — which was apparently a lot closer than people knew at the time. But we’ve survived.

At least since the late 1940s, thoughtful people have argued for the abolition of WMDs. It hasn’t happened. I think that almost everyone wishes it would, but no one believes that it will.

Our best hope is that we can continue to manage an awful situation without killing ourselves. Belief in God is probably a neutral factor. If God exists, He might give us some help with the problem: Just a suggestion in case He reads this blog.

Conclusion (4): Therefore, belief in God is too risky.

By my count, premises 1 and 2 are false, and we can’t do anything about premise 3. Therefore, the conclusion (4) is unsupported.

Whether or not belief in God is true, and in what sense, it is not too risky. It has both positive and negative effects. Which effects it will have is up to us.

Footnotes

  1. In Chapter 11 of Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things, I argue that beliefs about God have meaning by their connections to other beliefs about God and the transcendent. However, the meaning applies only within the network of connected theological beliefs.
  2. In ordinary practical reasoning, theists often use anthropomorphic ideas of God because it’s efficient for their purpose. Cognitive scientist Jason Slone calls it “theological incorrectness.”


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Why Power Corrupts Us

Power tends to corrupt us. So do privilege and status.

Of course, we like to believe that it happens only to other people. We could never be corrupted by power and privilege. We’re too good for that.

Unfortunately, however, we’re not too good for that. Almost anyone can be corrupted.

But did you ever think about why it’s true?

Like many truths about life, the answer is hiding in plain sight.

When we want something, we feel our emotion directly. It’s vivid and real to us. The same applies when we’re happy or hurt.

But when someone else wants something, is happy or hurt, we don’t feel their emotion directly. We might know about it, but only abstractly. It doesn’t seem real to us.

As a result, we’re biased in favor of what we know for sure: i.e., what we want. As for the happiness of other people, we carelessly ignore what doesn’t seem real.

Similarly, when good things happen to us, we assume it’s because of our own efforts. When bad things happen to us, we assume it’s because of bad luck or unfairness. We know first-hand how hard we’ve worked and how many obstacles we had to overcome. We ignore the advantages and the opened doors that helped us to do it.

When good things happen to other people, we think they were lucky. When bad things happen to them, it’s because they didn’t work hard or because they were bad people. We never see the disadvantages and the closed doors that thwarted their efforts. Maybe they could have achieved just as much we did, or maybe not: we’ll never know.

There’s no way to make life completely fair. We can make it fair-er, but social perfection is out of our reach.

We all come into this world with advantages and disadvantages. As the years go by and our lives progress, we get some lucky breaks and some unlucky ones.

As a general principle, that’s true of everyone. It’s not something we can control.

What we can control is what we do about it:

  • We can face life with courage and serenity.
  • We can look for the good in every situation.
  • We can work hard, but accept that we won’t always win.
  • We can remember that other people’s happiness counts.
  • We can trust in the essential goodness of the universe.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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We Are What We Are

We are what we are. The only question is what we choose to do about it.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I knew a political writer who was a nasty, hateful person.

Then he became a Christian.

And — unlike other Christians I know — he was a nasty, hateful Christian.

His conversion made no difference at all in his attitude. He changed his religion, but he didn’t change himself.

In other words, he expressed his hostility in terms of whatever worldview he held at the moment: first secular, then religious.

His professed religion or ideology didn’t cause his hatred. It only provided a framework for him to talk about it and justify it.

That example came to mind as I was reading Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s book The Virtue of Nationalism:

“The argument most commonly made against a nationalist politics is that it encourages hatred and bigotry. And there is certainly some truth in this …

[But] universal political ideals—of the kind that are so prominent, for example, in the European Union—seem invariably to generate hatred and bigotry to at least the same degree as nationalist movements … the hatred that proponents of imperialist or universalist ideologies feel toward national or tribal groups that refuse to accept their claim to be bringing salvation and peace to the world.”

Two facts are relevant:

All political and social arrangements are imperfect.

That’s because people are imperfect. In any large group, some people will be haters. To justify their hatred, they will latch onto whatever ideology is handy. Other people in the same large group will be saints. They will love and help people, citing many of the same ideological reasons as the haters. And most people will be in the middle, neither very good nor very bad. They’ll tend to go whichever way they’re pushed.

In addition, any large group will include people who disagree with each other about moral and social issues. No matter what the group does, some of its members will regard the decision as unsound, unfair, or unjust.

People instinctively divide into groups.

Because of their biological evolution, animals including humans tend to trust, help, and cooperate with others they perceive as their genetic “kin.” Distinct nations arise from  people with some genetic relatedness, even if outsiders can join. For example, Moment Magazine checked the genetic profiles of 15 prominent Jewish Americans (not including yours truly, of course) and reported that all except Linda Chavez were directly related.

Unlike lower animals, humans unconsciously use belief, dress, language, and religion as proxies for genetic relatedness. If people disagree with us about the basic issues of life, we tend to perceive them as competitors instead of kin. That primes us to feel hostility and to fight them.

Nationalist or globalist, the people in each group who are prone to hatred will hate people in the other group. Those inclined toward peace and friendship will try to build bridges to the other group. But since it’s easier to destroy a bridge than to build it, the peacemakers are usually at a disadvantage.

The bottom line is twofold. First, opponents of nationalism are pursuing an unattainable ideal. Social and political perfection are impossible. Hatred, strife, and war can only be minimized, not eliminated. The cure usually ends up being worse than the disease.

Second, group behavior is baked into human DNA. Even if globalists eliminated nations, they couldn’t eliminate human groups: all they could do is impose their own group’s hegemony on other, conquered and subjugated groups. And eventually, their own group would divide into new subgroups, while subjugated groups would throw off the yoke and regain their independence.

It would save all of us a lot of time, grief, and bloodshed if we could stop trying to impose our ideas and ways of life on people who don’t want them. As Hillel said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah. The rest is commentary.”


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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