Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ethical Questions on Vacation

Some thoughts on a few situations from this past weekend.

We were flying home on vacation with a connection in Denver, Colorado. Originally, we had about one (1) hour between flights. However our first flight was delayed—due to weather—for 2 ½ hours. Needless to say we (along with the majority of the plane) missed our connection.

Off we all trouped to “Customer Service” to obtain a new flight the next morning, and vouchers for dinner, breakfast and a hotel room. The vouchers were “use-it-or-lose-it”; no cash would be returned if the amount wasn’t used. We were allotted up to $60 (for four people) for dinner and $60 for breakfast. Upon finding an airport restaurant, we ordered more than enough food (more than we would normally get) and the total came up to around $40. We then had the following conversation, repeated almost verbatim the next morning at breakfast:

Cashier: You still have money left…what else do you want?
Me: Nothing, thank you.
Cashier: We don’t give cash back.
Me: Yes, I know. That is enough.
Cashier: You sure you don’t want to order some food to go, or bottles of water, or something?
Me: No, we don’t need it.

I figured we were delayed for no fault of the airline. It happens. Why “punish” the airline by using up the voucher buying food we didn’t need? The cashier looked at me as if I was crazy. (Of course the restaurant was making money on the MORE things they sell, so it made sense to push me to use the entire voucher.)

The next morning, due to the early hour, the only airport restaurant open was McDonalds. I saw many of the same passengers from the night before in line—all of us with our vouchers. Now…we had $15 each to spend. I have never spent $15 per person at McDonald’s. Ever. So…again…I ordered what we would normally eat. Again had the same conversation about money left, no cash back, why don’t I order more?, etc.

The vouchers are “up to” a certain amount…not spend it like money was made on trees. I was a little surprised people felt so obligated to spend the entire amount; I was shocked how people found it odd I didn’t want to spend $60 at McDonalds on four people. The Fat Man next to me proudly grinned, “I spent $14.93,” as I looked over his two (2) bags of food (including 2 cinnamon bites), large coffee, large orange juice and large milk.

I found it curious.

Scenario #2—the Fat Man.

In these situations, a sort of camaraderie develops amongst the victims. In Durango, Colorado, we all commiserated about the flights we would be missing before our take-off. In Denver, we all stood in the same “Customer Service” line. We rode the shuttle to the hotel and back again. We saw each other in the airport the next day.

“Where you headed?”
“What flight did you get?”
“How much did they give you?”

We endured the pain together.

The Fat Man went straight to the front of the line at Customer Service (by-passing about 25 people) and informed them he could not stand in line because of his heart condition, his diabetes and his breathing problems. Further, he informed everyone within hearing range that he was quickly running out of medicine and needed to get home (Atlanta) in order to re-supply.

It sounded serious.

He sat down next to my family who were waiting for me to get to the Customer Service Counter. Upon learning we were from Michigan, he piped up how he once lived in Michigan. As the conversation developed, it came out we support Michigan State University.

Fat Man: Oh, I root for University of Michigan.*
Wife: Did you go there?**
Fat Man: No, I went to a private school in South Carolina.
Wife: Bob Jones University?
Fat Man: [somewhat hesitantly] Yesss…
Wife: Oh, we have a relative who works there.

*If you lived in Michigan, you would know some of the biggest rivalry is between cheering on MSU as compared to UofM.
**They never do. A common saying is, “MSU fans went to Michigan State; U of M fans went to Wal-Mart.”

At this point the Fat Man was relieved to find fellow Christians, and began to regale us with tales of his past two weeks missionary work amongst the Navajo Indians, and his previous two weeks at some other place, doing God’s work. Luckily, our situation was resolved at that minute; we were able to break away with (relieved) exclamations of “Well…good luck!”

Now I was watching these vouchers for the same hotel being handed to passenger after passenger, and wondered if the airline was making reservations as well, or just handing out vouchers. I called the hotel, did not receive a clear answer--so to be safe, I reserved two (2) rooms. (They only had single king-size rooms, and our family was not all going to fit in one (1) king-size bed!)

We would only be at the hotel for six (6) hours.

With our rooms assured, we ate leisurely, and caught the airport shuttle to the hotel. In the hotel lobby, there was a ruckus. Even a bit of a snit. A number of our fellow passengers were milling about and the Fat Man was yelling about how “I have a VOUCHER, and I must have a ROOM, and we were promised we could STAY HERE!” The harried clerk said again and again, “I am sorry, people, but all the rooms are booked.”

Upon seeing us, the Fat Man continued to yell, “Good Luck getting a room, Your ‘VOUCHER’” (he almost spit the word) “is worth NOTHING! They won’t even let me sleep in the Lobby—they said they would call the police!”

Now at that moment, it seriously crossed my mind to tell the Fat Man to wait, see if our two rooms were being held (they were), and see if we could somehow accommodate to fit all of us in one room (with blankets, roll-aways, whatever) and give the Fat Man the other room. As it turns out, the rooms were large enough, it was certainly feasible. And we were only going to be there a few hours anyway.

I really, really wanted to say, “Fat Man—you can have one of our rooms. And just know it was an atheist—not a Christian—who charitably gave it up for you.” But then I thought, “This is the type of guy who will go home and entertain his entire congregation with a story about how God provided a hotel room for him (not thinking about all the other passengers who were missing out) and how God has such a sense of humor, He even used an Atheist as the tool to provide for God’s child!”

And if I didn’t say I was an atheist, he would still tell the story of his “rescue” miraculously provided by God with a small mention of the human involved. Whereas the reality is—one human (me) happened to be a little more pro-active.

I didn’t give up the room.

The next day I saw the Fat Man spend $14.93 at McDonalds.

When I told my wife I felt slightly guilty for not giving up the room for him, she was aghast. “Him?” She told me the Fat Man confessed to her his insurance had lapsed, and that was the reason he was running out of medicine—not the timing of the trip. He gleefully admitted he was using the “running out of Medicine” as a means to get service.

Yet I still wonder if I should have given the Fat Man the room.

Not because I am a particularly nice person—I just love the delicious irony it would take an atheist—not a God, not a fellow Christian—to resolve this boorish Fat Man’s problem. Even if he never knew…I would.

Friday, July 06, 2012

Strawpeople…Strawpeople Everywhere

We are quite familiar with the strawperson argument—claiming your opponent makes a false statement when it turns out that is not what your opponent is saying at all. For example, making the argument:

“1) Scientists claim we will some day know everything.
“2) We will never know everything.
“3) Therefore scientists are wrong.

While a brilliant argument…the problem is that no scientist says we will some day know everything. One has built the strawperson—“Scientists make this claim”—and then burned it down—“the claim is wrong”—to no avail. Looks good; means nothing.

The issue I am beginning to see in theological debates, is how one can preface a statement, “Some ___ claim ____” and we can eventually find some theist or non-theist who indeed makes such a claim. Therefore, it is not technically a strawperson—the argument simply happens to only address a very small minority. “Some Christians claim we must follow Mosaic law.” “Some Christians hold to geocentric theory.” “Some atheists believe we must all dance naked at midnight on the Summer Solstice.” One could make any claim and eventually manage to scrounge out some person of a particular belief who does hold to such a premise.

For me, personally, to determine how “strawish” an argument is, I rely upon Google. A very simplistic method—plug in the claimed statement in a search, start reading through results, and determine how prevalent this claim really is. I am disappointed, when discussing with Christians, how often I hear, “Well, this is something a lot of atheists I know tell me in person” yet I find no such claim on the internet. If it was so common to hear…at least a few such items would pop up on-line. I pointed this out in a comment section and another Christian honestly conceded what was being claimed as “coming up so often” was oddly completely missing from the internet.

How is it all these atheists or Christians are making these statements in person, yet when we try to narrow them down with any precision on-line, we find nothing? I think it is because the person is hearing something different than is being said.

In a recent blog entry, ”Do people become atheists for Only intellectual reasons?” a statement was made, ”What is funny, is that some who embraced atheism on intellectual grounds, from say thinking that teaching on evolution proves there is no God,…”

The question was then brought out how many non-theists made the claim, “Evolution proves there is no God.” And whether this statement was a strawperson—are there non-theists who say, “Evolution proves there is no God”?

Now what do you think I did? Of course…I plugged “Evolution proves there is no god” into Google to see how common this claim was being made. And found (not surprisingly) a few persons who did, indeed say this. We have a Yahoo Question, “Does Evolution Prove there is no God?” where the “best” answer (by votes) responds, “Of course it does,…” However, if we scroll through the other answers provided, a number of people said, “No, these ideas are mutually exclusive.”

On the other hand Talk Origins states evolution does not say anything about a god—proof or disproof. If you bothered to pour through the Google results, the primary hits involve Christians who claim scientists allege Evolution proves there is no God (the problem I will focus on it a minute), the secondary hits are non-theists debunking the idea Evolution proves there is no God, and by far, far last place, a few hits regarding people claiming Evolution proves there is no God.

Is it a strawperson? No. Is it speaking to a miniscule small percentage (less than 1%, I would estimate). Yep.

So why…if so few non-theists are claiming it…do Christians think non-theists are saying, “Evolution proves there is no God”?

Simple—because the very core of the Christians’ belief is that their God does not utilize evolution in its creation of this world. If evolution is true—their God is not. So for us to say “Evolution is true” they are hearing “Your God is not.” And since there can only be one God—their own—these Christians translate “Evolution is true” to “There is no God.”

To demonstrate this in action, notice the comment from Bill Pratt in the Tough Questions entry:
In the God Delusion, he said the following about evolution: "Darwin and his successors have shown how living creatures, with their spectacular statistical improbability and appearance of design, have evolved by slow, gradual degrees from simple beginnings. We can now safely say that the illusion of design in living creatures is just that—an illusion."

In the context of the book, this statement means that we don't need God to explain how life arose - evolution does that. Since the creation of life has commonly been attributed to God by theists, then the fact of Darwinian evolution is a serious blow to the existence of a God who supposedly created life.

I am nodding my head as I read along. “Yep. Dawkins is definitely arguing evolution proves there is no non-evolution-using God.” (sorry for the double negative) But it doesn’t say anything about proving no God exists—just that any such God that did would be utilizing evolution. As Andrew Ryan wisely responded—our determination of how lightning occurs did not disprove God, it only impinged the lightning-bolt-throwing Zeus God

See, to us non-theists, we are looking to see if any god exists. Whether it is the Mormon God, the Islam God, the Hindu Gods, the North American Spirits, etc. So for some particular argument, proof or truth to prove “No God Exists” it would have to eliminate every single one of these. Yes, we certainly can eliminate some gods, or some particular characteristics of gods. If one claims God made the world 6,000 years ago, we would certainly say we have proved that particular God does not exist. Or the theist is incorrect about that particular aspect of that God.

Does the age of the earth prove no God exists? Of course not.

But the Christian is so certain they have the aspects of their God correct—certain items MUST be true—to argue against it or prove this one detail incorrect causes the entire house of cards to fall. So when we say, “The Bible has errors” if inerrancy is such a key requirement, they hear, “There is no God.”

“Jesus didn’t bodily rise from the dead.”
Physical resurrections hear “There is no God.”

“The earth is 4.5 Billion years old.”
YEC’s hear “There is no God.”

“Evolution is true”
Intelligent Design theorists hear “There is no God.”

It is this confusion where the non-theist is puzzling, “But I’m not saying there is no God—I am saying your God-concept does not align with reality. Either modify it, or present compelling reasons why.” And all the Christian hears is, “If this part of God is incorrect, then there can be no god whatsoever.”

I had another similar strawperson discussion over at Dr. Clay Jones’ Blog. There, the confusion seems to arise regarding what the Christian was saying and the non-theist (Dr. Ehrman) was hearing, although it is not quite clear.

We have an obligation to clarify when we are discussing a particular topic: Reality removes or greatly diminishes certain aspects of possible gods. But there is no one line-item, or one proof, or one fact disproving all Gods.

If the Christian cannot understand that (and I fear most cannot), then we have done our duty and I would move on.