Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, March 31, 2008

So it begins

"We are being proactive, people. We are getting things done."
--Wag The Dog

Buh-bye, ugly tile. You won't be missed.

Don't laugh, ugly carpet. You're next.

A cold chisel and a big heavy hammer actually make pretty quick work of chipping out tile, though I don't recommend starting the job at 11:30 pm. Once the 25 sq. ft. of old tile has been chiseled out, we start on pulling out carpet. Then we'll lay a new and improved tile entry and a separate hearth. Then comes the wood.

Stay tuned for more exciting home renovation updates. Next time: I wonder why my arms are sore the morning after enthusiastically wielding a hefty mallet.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Catholics and Evolution

This was originally intended to be a comment on the post below regarding "folk science", responding to Karie's request for books dealing with evolution from a Catholic perspective. However, it was getting so long I figured it might as well be a post instead.

I have not, as of yet, read the books that Geoffrey recommends, though several of them are ones that I am eager to read -- notably the collection of papers from the conference on evolution and creation which Benedict XVI sponsored last year (and now available in English from Ignatius.)

There is, in my opinion, a dearth of good material on "evolution from a Catholic perspective" which is accessible to the average reader. The reason for this is, so far as I can tell, that for many of those with a solid understanding of the topic, it does not seem like much of a controversy for Catholics, while many of those who are most urgent to frame the debate for other Catholics are those who are concerned that evolution represents some particular threat to the faith.

At the risk of being pedantic (a risk to which I am all too prone) I'd like to try to sketch very briefly how it seems to me the issue should be viewed by Catholics before listing off a couple of books.

There are, so far as I can tell, three reasons that people worry about evolution from a religious perspective:

1) Scriptural -- For those with a certain approach to biblical exegesis, it seems necessary to believe that all plants and animals were created within a short period of time and that nothing ever died before Adam's fall. For these folks, the billion year plus history of life presented by evolution is a major problem.

2) Philosophical -- Many Catholic thinkers look at terms used by modern biologists such as "undirected evolution" and "random mutation" and take it that evolution as a biological theory requires a philosophical stance that denies God's knowledge and creative power. They have no problem in principle with an ancient earth or with common descent, but they fear that evolutionary theory requires an acceptance of radically materialistic philosophy. This is also fed by:

3) Guilt by Association -- Many of the most well known biologists of the last 150 years have been atheists, and some of the most outspoken attackers of religion today (e.g. Richard Dawkins) are professional biologists. Given point two above, this tends to make people even more concerned that there is something fundamentally dangerous about evolutionary theory.

Point one has never been a great Catholic hang up because it is based on an approach to biblical interpretation which is generally not ours. However, if one wants to look at the question of how Catholics should deal with the creation account in Genesis, you won't get much better than Pope Benedict's commentary on the Creation Account. Catholics have long held that the Bible and science are eminently compatible -- a point on which Galileo extensively quotes St. Augustine in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina.

Point two is where the most worry goes on these days, fueled to a great degree by point three. (Guilt by association is not, of course, a valid reason to take anything to be false in the realm of science, but it's an easy enough worry to get into given that so many apologists for atheism are running around loudly claiming that evolution has proved that there is no God.)

Perhaps the most famous example in regards to point two is some Cardinal Schonborn's writing, including his famous NY Times editorial, and several articles in First Things. Now, I agree with nearly everything that Schonborn says, except that he at time seems to suggest (and I don't know if this is just a matter of translation or a confusion that sometimes creeps into his writing) that the modern "neo-Darwinian" synthesis in biology somehow contains (or can contain) philosophical assumptions of randomness and lack of direction which are contrary to the faith.

Now, certainly, many individual scientists base their claims that the world is random and without direction (in the philosophical sense of the terms) on their understanding of biology, but in my opinion (and Cardinal Schonborn expresses this as well in some other parts of his writing) it is not in fact possible for science to produce or support philosophical positions such as these, except to the degree it may make one feel they are plausible.

People often think of science as telling us how the world actually is, but in fact, the scientific method is simply designed to allow us to make accurate predictive models of how physical systems governed by physical laws will act in the future. As such, it is fundamentally incapable of speaking to issues like whether the universe has a purpose, is moving in some intended direction, or is "random" in the philosophical sense of the term.

All that said, I don't currently have any books that deal with issues two and three from a Catholic perspective. I would, however, strongly recommend anything written in First Things about evolution by either Stephen M. Barr or Fr. Edward T. Oakes.

Stephen M. Barr's book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith deals with the relationship between modern science and a proper Catholic understanding of God's role in providing order in the universe (and the inability of materialist philosophies to explain this on their own) but it's primarily about physics and astronomy in that regard, not biology.

Kenneth Miller's Finding Darwin's God presents some good critiques of the science that goes into "Intelligent Design", but I didn't find it fully satisfying at a theological level. (Miller is a Catholic biologist.)

My own approach tends to be that one doesn't really need a Catholic book on evolution, so long as one had a proper Catholic understanding of the place of the physical sciences in the overall hierarchy of knowledge. If one has a clear idea of what science can and can't do, evolution as a theory doesn't present any particular worry from a Catholic point of view.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Steinbeck on a Chinese cook and the Old Testament

JulieD's recent podcast referred me to a post on The Paragraph Farmer in which he quotes a snippet from Steinbeck's East of Eden which I highly recommend. I've never had any particular urge to read Steinbeck, though I've always heard of him as "someone people read". But whether you like him or not (or don't care) go read the selection on Patrick's blog.

Folk Science and Self Deception

SF Matheson of Quintessence of Dust had an interesting post up last week about what he terms "folk science".
Months ago, I was worrying about how to characterize creationist statements that are untrue or misleading. The claims in question are not merely false (mistakes of various kinds can generate falsehood) and are not statements of opinion with which I disagree. They are claims that are demonstrably false but have been asserted by people who are certain (or likely) to know this. In other words, they bear the marks of duplicity. I said:
As a Christian, I am scandalized and sickened by nearly all creationist commentary on evolution. But I'm not a misanthrope, and so I find it hard to believe that so many people could be so overtly dishonest.
So I proposed the term 'folk science' as a way to refer to belief-supporting statements that sound scientific but do not seek to communicate scientific truth. I have two goals in my practice of using this phrase: 1) I recognize folk science as a particular type of argumentation, and I want to be able to accurately identify it as such; and 2) I want to create space within which I can identify falsehood, and especially falsehood that seeks to mislead, without making unwarranted accusations.
Part of the problem that Matheson is trying to grapple with is that, as a Christian who knows something about science, reading creationist or ID "science" often leaves you wondering how such egregious errors or ommissions could be passed off so blithely if not through clear intent to deceive. Matheson is hesitant to use the word "lying", because he suspects that these people are not being intentionally dishonest. And yet, many of them are at least moderately well educated in their fields and are peddling interpretations and claims which can be disproved with only a few minutes worth of research with decent sources.

If these people aren't lying, and they're stating things so obviously wrong, what exactly is going on?

I think the root problem here is that very often when dealing with issues surrounding evolution, creationism/ID apologists are coming to the table with a preconceived answer and simply looking for evidence to support that answer. With creationism, the answer is biblically derived. With ID, it's built into the "if we can throw doubt on how a system evolved, that proves it was designed" false dichotomy which is at the root of the whole ID claim.

Either way, however, the apologist has a structure already clearly built in his head for which he merely has to pick up a few supportied pieces of evidence -- rather like the undergraduate paper-writer who first writes his text and then does some "research" in order to pull in three footnotes per paragraph supporting his thesis.

Of course, practitioners of all disciplines are subject to this affliction. If one is searching history for proof that the Church is a force or repression or that women are smarter than men or that all of Western knowledge was stollen from Africa, one of course finds it. A sufficient degree of certainty as to result allows one to only notice the evidence the supports your thesis, and to discard everything else as either irrelevant or probably the result of one's ideological opponents dishonesty.

Apparent dishonesty of the sort that Matheson highlights among creationsts (if you want to see examples of just a few howlers, click through to his article above, he's quite concrete) is, thus, a result not of an explicit attempt to decieve, but rather of a set of preconceived notions so strongly held do that one can easily deceive oneself -- finding only supporting evidence and ignoring all evidence to the contrary.

My own favorite anecdote in this regard (and my apologies if I've trotted this out here before -- I fear I may well have) dates from my time at Steubenville, when I found myself in debate with a part time Classics lecturer who'd written several articles for Catholic magazines advocating Intelligent Design theory. (He's since gone on to become a fellow at the Discovery Institute and a prolific writer.) He asserted that the fossil record contained absolutely no evidence for evolution, and refered, if memory serves, to gaps like that between whales and their land-dwelling ancestors. Species were always so different, he asserted, it was impossible to imagine one was descended from another.

I pointed out that in less exciting (and far more frequently preserved) species such as mollusks, the sequential species in the fossil record were so closely and clearly similar that the species divisions seemed almost arbitrary. Without missing a beat he responded, "Maybe, but no one cares about mollusks."

At the time, this struck me as a clear disregard for facts and an interest only in scoring rhetorical wins based on the famous "gaps", and there may well have been some of that involved, but looking back based on Matheson's take (and a the calmness of past years) I think it was more simply that the whale gap fit with the worldview he was already totally committed to, and since the mollusks didn't, he assumed that they must not be very important.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The sound of music

Our assistant pastor is a man with much on his plate. He's the sort of gregarious guy who presses the flesh and has big ideas, most of which actually get implemented in some form. It's tricky, though, if you're relying on him to be in charge of something, because the man is busy and has many demands on his time.

Father is technically the director of our schola. As we're often singing at events over which he's presiding, the actual direction of the singers at functions has fallen to me. At first I felt extremely inadequate, waving my hands and pretending I knew what the hell I was doing. Now (after having directed at most of the Stations of the Cross, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter morning) I feel a bit more competent, but I still wish I knew what the hell I'm doing. Can any of our vocally inclined readers recommend a book or resource for the direction of small ensembles? We don't necessarily just sing chant -- I'd particularly like to branch out into some polyphony such as Byrd or Tallis.

It seems that there is a hunger for this sacred music. People have been excited about hearing the chant in it's proper context, and someone even commented, "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if there was a way to get some of this chant into the mass! Is that allowed?" (We don't get a huge amount of Mass exposure because currently we only sing one Sunday Mass a month -- at 7:30 AM.)

But I'm hopeful. Our parish ministry fair -- excuse me, DiscipleSHIP 2008 -- is in two weeks, and the schola will have a booth. I'm not necessarily looking for new membership, especially as that will require auditions. Rather, I just want the parish (especially those who attend Masses at which the musical style is rather different from our own) to know that we exist, and that this music is still living and being used in its proper liturgical context.

To that end, I have another question: can anyone translate this into Spanish for me?

The Schola Cantorum at St. Elizabeth is dedicated to helping our parish rediscover the beauty of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony within the liturgy. Encouraged by Pope Benedict’s desire for a renewed emphasis on Gregorian chant, we strive to create a new appreciation for this ageless music through an emphasis on beauty of tone and technical excellence.

The Schola currently sings the 7:30 AM mass on the third Sunday of each month, as well as at parish events such as Stations of the Cross during Lent and the Festival of Lessons and Carols in Advent.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Faith or Foolishness

Scientist, skeptic and neo-atheist (being the term for the pack of current atheists who are concerned that perhaps the case against religion is not being made forcefully enough) PZ Myers has a thought for Easter: "This is Easter, the day Christians everywhere set aside to celebrate the day they were hoaxed by a gang of Middle Eastern charlatans into believing a local mystic rose from the dead." [Hat Tip: John Farrell]

There's not normally a whole lot of point in pointing out this kind of thing, because these is just how PZ thinks, and there's not much anyone is going to do about it. However, the quote stuck with me and eventually I had to come up with an answer for myself as to why.

What I eventually realized is that there's a much bigger difference between the line of thinking displayed in this quote and my own than whether one believes the claim that Christ rose from the dead. There's a profound difference in how one views a significant portion of the human experience throughout history. The quote doesn't just portray Christianity as false, it portrays it as stupid: A bunch of stupid ancients were fooled by a bunch of only slightly less stupid Jewish guys into believing that some local wise guy had risen from the dead, and rubes ever since have fallen for it.

But it's not just that I don't see the origins of Christianity as moronic, but that I don't necessarily see any of history's major religions as moronic. Religion does not just represent some sort of silly, over-grown-tooth-fairy way of explaining how things got to be the way they are. Religion has, throughout human history, provided an important part of what it means to be human. And in that sense, not only should the Christian and Hebrew scriptures not be seen as idiotic, but the Koran, the Mahabharata, the Norse sagas, the poems of Homer and Hesiod, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and a host of others should not be seen as mockable by a truly humanistic person either.

Even if false, serious religious writings tell us a lot about the human endeavor. Humans have always been, so far as we can tell, religious creatures. We find traces of ritual and cult among some of the earliest archaeological traces left by out ancestors. And so even though I by no means believe that Zeus and Odin and Amon Re and Mithras and the like were who their believers thought they were -- or indeed existed at all -- it would strike me as inappropriate to openly mock belief in them. Because at the very least, even if all the answers the people have ever found through religion are wrong, the questions that inspired those answers deal with some of the most essential aspects of what it means to be human.

If you can't see that there's something profound (even if incorrect) about the Christian story, then you don't really understand much about humanity.

True Religious Tolerance and Dialog

There has continued to be some very interesting discussion about pope Benedict XVI personally baptising Magdi Allam.

Sherry Weddell continues to fear that turning the baptism of an Islamic-born, politically controversial journalist into a global media event will have tragic repurcussions for Christian converts and missionaries living in the Middle East and North Africa.

Abu Daoud reponds to her concerns.

(Incidently, if all blogsphere argument was as civil and thoughtful as the Sherry/Abu Daoud exchange, it would be a pretty wonderful thing.)

Zenit has posted the full text of an editorial letter dealing with his conversion which Magdi Allam sent to the newspaper at which he works. (HatTip: Blackadder) From that letter by Allam come some interesting thoughts:
Dear Director, you asked me whether I fear for my life, in the awareness that conversion to Christianity will certainly procure for me yet another, and much more grave, death sentence for apostasy. You are perfectly right. I know what I am headed for but I face my destiny with my head held high, standing upright and with the interior solidity of one who has the certainty of his faith. And I will be more so after the courageous and historical gesture of the Pope, who, as soon has he knew of my desire, immediately agreed to personally impart the Christian sacraments of initiation to me. His Holiness has sent an explicit and revolutionary message to a Church that until now has been too prudent in the conversion of Muslims, abstaining from proselytizing in majority Muslim countries and keeping quiet about the reality of converts in Christian countries. Out of fear. The fear of not being able to protect converts in the face of their being condemned to death for apostasy and fear of reprisals against Christians living in Islamic countries. Well, today Benedict XVI, with his witness, tells us that we must overcome fear and not be afraid to affirm the truth of Jesus even with Muslims.

For my part, I say that it is time to put an end to the abuse and the violence of Muslims who do not respect the freedom of religious choice. In Italy there are thousands of converts to Islam who live their new faith in peace. But there are also thousands of Muslim converts to Christianity who are forced to hide their faith out of fear of being assassinated by Islamic extremists who lurk among us. By one of those “fortuitous events” that evoke the discreet hand of the Lord, the first article that I wrote for the Corriere on Sept. 3, 2003 was entitled “The new Catacombs of Islamic Converts.” It was an investigation of recent Muslim converts to Christianity in Italy who decry their profound spiritual and human solitude in the face of absconding state institutions that do not protect them and the silence of the Church itself. Well, I hope that the Pope’s historical gesture and my testimony will lead to the conviction that the moment has come to leave the darkness of the catacombs and to publicly declare their desire to be fully themselves. If in Italy, in our home, the cradle of Catholicism, we are not prepared to guarantee complete religious freedom to everyone, how can we ever be credible when we denounce the violation of this freedom elsewhere in the world? I pray to God that on this special Easter he give the gift of the resurrection of the spirit to all the faithful in Christ who have until now been subjugated by fear. Happy Easter to everyone.
So it seems that in Allam's mind there is also a very real significance to this to members of the ex-Muslim convert communities in Italy and in Europe as a whole, who may find themselves with little protection against retribution for their "apostacy" when government and church authorities are so focused on respecting "cultural diversity" that they fail to reign in its more dangerous elements.

Finally, Routers reports that several Islamic scholars associated with the A Common Word initiative towards better Islamic/Christian dialog have voiced regret that the pope baptised Allam so publically, seeing this as a public blow to dialog.
Aref Ali Nayed, a key figure in a group of over 200 Muslim scholars launching discussion forums with Christian groups, said the Vatican had turned the baptism of Egyptian-born journalist Magdi Allam into "a triumphalist tool for scoring points."....

"The whole spectacle... provokes genuine questions about the motives, intentions and plans of some of the pope's advisers on Islam," Nayed, who is director of the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, said in a statement.

"Nevertheless, we will not let this unfortunate episode distract us from our work on pursuing 'A Common Word' for the sake of humanity and world peace. Our basis for dialogue is not a tit-for-tat logic of reciprocity."
Reading all this, however, I find myself wondering if Benedict's aim in all this is to make a statement about the nature of true religious toleration and dialog. There has been a tendency in the '60s for many to downplay the importance of conversion in favor of "dialog". I'm sure that nearly all of us know a few converts who were initially told by some priest or layperson, "God just wants you to be the best person that you can be where you already are. We don't 'convert' people anymore."

Even when things are not taken to this extremity, it often seems to be held that religius toleration and dialog requires that the parties not talk about the fact that, by virtue of belonging to very different religious traditions, they to some degree hold that the others have false beliefs and would be better off converting.

Benedict is no political and cultural fire-breether, but he is a thoughtful and holy man who is in no sense afraid of difficult and unpopular truths. I wonder if the pope, who according to Allam immediately agreed to personally receive him into the Church when Allam made the request, means with this action to make a statement that he will bring to the table when he meets with scholards from the A Common Word initiative in November: Toleration means not merely ignoring and minimizing points of difference, but respecting the conscience of others even in the face of grave and important points of difference.

True progress in the dialog between Islam and Christianity must mean not only respect for all that is good and shared by the two traditions, but also an acknowledgement that we do indeed differ on profound and important questions of faith, and that despite this members of both faiths must respect the freedom of conscience of the others.

Tolerance, in its real sense, must mean not merely minimizing the differences between us, but treating each other with respect while acknowledging our differences.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Pope Benedict Baptises ex-Muslim Convert

Each year, the pope personally baptises a small number of converts to the faith during the Easter Vigil mass celebrated in St. Peter's Basilica. This year, one of the seven adult converts the Pope Benedict XVI baptised was Egyptian-born Magdi Allam. Allam's wife and children are Catholic, and he has for years been a figure in Italian media circles -- controversial for his criticism of extremism in the Muslim world and his support for Israel. In regards to his Islamic upbringing, Allam says that he was never a fully practicing Muslim (he didn't pray five times a day facing Mecca), although he did make the Hajj pilgrimage with his mother twenty years ago.CNN covers Allam's conversion here.

Abu Daoud of Islam and Christianity blogs about the pope's baptism of Allam and hopes it may have a positive impact on others thinking of becoming Christian in the Muslim world.

SherryW of Intentional Disciples is concerned that having a convert from Islam baptised on international TV by the pope presents an incendiary image and overly associates the Christian missionary message with Allam's at-times incendiary views about the Middle East.

Abu Daoud responds to her concerns with a second post here. Among his comments, this struck me has particularly interesting:
Christians in MENA [Middle East/North Africa] will indeed live with this for years. They will live with the image of the best know Christian in the world baptizing a Muslim. It will give them hope. It will encourage other Muslims to convert. It will, in a few Muslims' minds, occasion the question, "What if I left?" Most of them have never even considered the possibility. Many of them don't even know that people DO leave Islam.

This is great news for the Catholic Church as well as the mission to Muslims. Muslims respect the Catholic Church and the pope because he is powerful. That is a language that they can understand. They know that he holds more sway around the world Christians than does any single person in Islam. They know he has a country of his own. They know his office is very ancient. These things, to the Muslim mind, and specifically to the Muslim Arab mind are often attractive. Becoming a non-denominational Christian with no clear affinity or relation to anyone else is not always appealing to a Muslim considering conversion.
While I have a lot of respect for Sherry and the Sienna Institute, I'm more inclined to follow Abu Daoud's thinking on this than hers.

Candy Madness

Out of respect for the solemnity and dignity of Easter, we refrained from posting these yesterday.

For those always interested in new horizons in medical research, we present Peep Research, the site for all experiments dealing with marshmallow chickens. (The brave of heart will want to witness the extraordinary miracle of the separation of Peeps quintuplets.) Read at your own risk; not safe for work if your boss tends to frown on the sounds of hysterical choking laughter emanating from your cubicle.

UPDATE (from Darwin): And of course, one must not forget the study on the effects of smoking upon peeps:

The lesson? While smoking may not have immediate bad health effects, smoking while swimming in a vat of pure alcohol does.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Prayer Request

Please remember in your prayers our friends the T. family, who lost their husband and father on Good Friday after a long battle with cancer.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Avarice & Prodigality

[Things have been very busy at work lately, and we've both been involved in various parish activities leading up to Holy Week, so my progress through Purgatorio has been sadly slowed. I'll probably be finishing well into Easter Season at this point, but I do plan to push through and finish blogging the second volume of the Commedia this year. I'll save Paradiso for next year.]

When I stepped out into the fifth circle,
I witnessed people on it who were weeping,
Lying on the ground with faces downward.

"My soul cleaves to the dust," this psalm I heard
Them murmuring with sighs so deep and gasping
That scarcely could the words be understood.
(Purg. XIX, 70-75)

As soon as the poets reach the fifth terrace, they find the ground covered with penitents laying face down in the dust. Dante asks if any of them are Italian and if someone can explain to him the nature of the sin they are seeking to expiate, and he is answered by Pope Adrian V, who reigned for one month only in 1276.

Pope Adrian tells Dante of how his ascension to the papal throne showed him at last that earthly honors and possessions do not bring true happiness, and brought about in him a conversion to true love of God -- and just in time as he lived but one month more. On this terrace, those who placed their love in earthly things and turned their backs to God lay face down, facing the earth which they so loved, with their backs to heaven. They water the earth with the tears of their repentance until they are judged ready to move upwards.

Dante is moved to be addressed by one of the successors of Peter, and is about to kneel down before him, but Pope Adrian orders him to remain standing:

"Straighten your legs, my brother, on your feet!"
He answered, "Make no mistake: with you and others
I am a fellow-servant of one Power.

"If ever you have understood the word
The Holy Gospel sounds in ‘They neither marry,’
You can see clearly why I speak this way.

"Now move along: I would not have you stay
Since your remaining here keeps me from weeping
The tears to ripen penance which you spoke of.
(Purg. XIX, 133-141)

Obedient to the pope, the poets move on down the terrace, which is so covered with the prostrate penitents that they have to pick their way carefully in order to avoid stepping on anyone.Greed is the most heavily populated terrace we have reached since pride -- humanity hasn't changed much in the 700 years since Dante's time.

After proceeding a little way, they hear called out three examples of holy poverty and generosity: Mary's giving birth to our Savior in a stable; the early Roman consul Fabius, who died in poverty rather than accept bribes; and St. Nicholas, lauded for helping the three dowerless maidens, among many others.

Dante is eager to find the speaker, and when he identifies the penitent who has been crying out these examples asks him who he is. The soul identifies himself as Hugh Capet, the founder of the French royal dynasty, who ruled from 987 to 996 AD. Hugh bewails the depths to which greed for wealth, land and power has driven his descendants, culminating in a prophecy of the kidnapping of the pope and Avignon Papacy -- which would begin five years after the internal date of the Divine Comedy, 1300, but before Dante's writing of it in 1308-1321.

Between these two characters to whom Dante speaks, we see examples of the two sources of power in medieval Europe, church and royalty, condemned for greed. The symmetry is surely not coincidental.

Hugh then goes on to list a number of examples of greed -- far more than the normal three we have heard on other terraces. Perhaps the pervasive and consuming nature of avarice deserves more exemplars. Among them are King Midas, Achan who tried to keep for himself spoils from Jericho in the book of Joshua, Sapphira and Ananias from Acts, and Marcus Licinius Crassus -- the Roman triumvir so known for greed that when the Parthians defeated and killed him in 53 B.C., their king had molten gold poured down the throat of his severed head, which was then left out as a warning to others.

After talking with Hugh, the poets move on around the terrace.

We were already gone away from him
And struggling to go forward on the road,
So far as our own powers would permit us,

When I felt — like something that is falling —
The mountain tremble, and at that a chill
Gripped me, as grips one going to his death.

Surely Delos did not shake so sharply
Before Latona built her nest in it
To give birth to the two eyes of the sky.

Then such a cry on all sides started up
That my master drew close to me and said,
"Don’t be afraid while I am guiding you."

"Glory to God in the highest" they all cried,
By what I understood from those close by,
Where the crying could be comprehended.

Motionless and in suspense we stood,
Just like the shepherds who first heard that song,
Until the trembling stopped and the song ended.

Then we took up again our holy road,
Looking at shades that lay along the ground
Already turned to their accustomed weeping.
(Purg. XX, 124-144)

Dante is so amazed by the tremor and the cry that he is afraid to ask any of the souls they pass the meaning of the event. After a few minutes the hear a greeting of, "My brothers, may God give you peace!" And turning, they see a soul approaching them from behind, walking upright among the see of prostrate penitents.

Virgil tells this new arrival the nature of their journey and asks him what the meaning of the recent tremor and cry of rejoicing was. The soul explains that when, after many years of penance, a penitent's will suddenly find itself able to conform perfectly with the virtue proper to the terrace, the soul rises from his penance and proceeds to the angel who guards the pass to the next terrace. As the soul rises, all the other penitents on the mountain cry out in rejoicing, and the mountain itself is shaken with God's joy.

The soul now speaking to them is the penitent who has just risen from over a hundred years spent on this terrace. Dante asks him who he was in life, and he says that he was Statius, a Roman poet of the first century A.D.

Statius waxes eloquent about poetry, and the inspiration he drew from reading the poetry of Virgil, who lived just a hundred years before. Dante cannot help smiling at this, and when Statius questions him reveals to him that it is the shade of Virgil who is standing with them at that very moment. Statius is overjoyed, but Virgil refuses the homage that Statius tries to pay him, saying that they are all brothers now in death.

Still immersed in conversation about poetry, the poets reach the angel who guards the pass to the next terrace. Another "p" is erased from Dante's forehead.

Thanks to:

The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter

The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum

And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Pride Goeth Before a Toddler

Sunday was one of those beautiful Texas spring days, and while doing a big of work in the new Darwin garden, I was pleased to see the first tomatoes of the season forming on one of the cherry tomato plants that I put in a few weeks ago.

So I took a picture, figuring I'd post it with some sort of vaunting statement like, "Those who are still dealing with snow and ice in mid March may like to know that in Texas the first tomatoes are appearing."

The picture came out beautifully, but today I got home from work to find that Miss Two Year Old had ripped the tomato plant out of the ground while playing outside today. (While crushing some purple basil as well for good measure.)

So it's back to the nursery for me in regards to cherry tomatoes...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Church-goer Divide

I ran into a couple of posts on Ross Douthat's blog at The Atlantic last night, dealing with the question of whether Sen. Obama is being unfairly held accountable for the black power/liberation theology beliefs of his minister, Jeremiah Wright. Douthat argues, and I think persuasively, that on the Republican side of the aisle no one could get off the ground as a presidential candidate who actually belonged to the congregation of one of the gonzo preachers (Hagee, Falwell, etc.) or the "religious right". Republican candidates certainly accept the support of these preachers and their congregations, but I think it's pretty fair to say that they would not elect a member of one of those congregations as their presidential nominee. Look how much low-level flack Huckabee absorbed because of his evangelical preacher background -- and he has a pretty tame theology by comparison to these more extreme characters. (A friend predicted to me: "Huckabee could never be elected president, because he believes the world is only 6000 years old." I suspect that's the case. Despite the rather large number of Americans who have some degree of creationist sympathies, it's just not something people would want to see their potential president holding fast to something so far out of the intellectual mainstream.)

What struck me as most interesting about these two Douthat posts, however, was the reaction which he was receiving from Atlantic readers. Many of readers essentially argued that the beliefs of Obama's pastor (that crack cocaine and AIDS were developed by the CIA to kill black people, that 9/11 was a punishment from God for America's sins against people of color, etc.) were not that weird compared to other things said by religious leaders. They would then either point to the outrageous statements of characters like Jerry Falwell, or argue that it was no more weird to believe that AIDS was developed by the government than to believe that God exists in the first place.

Both of these underlined to me that part of what we're seeing here is a difference between those who consider attendance at religious services to be a normal and important part of their lives, and those who don't. The latter argument, indeed, reminded me of a question which I believe Razib brought up on Gene Expression some months ago -- and I meant to blog about but never got around to -- which if memory serves was basically: Is it possible to say that one religious belief is more probably than another? At the time, Romney was catching some flack over Mormon beliefs, and Razib's question was: Is it actually any less probably that we all become gods of our own planets after we die than that Jesus rose from the dead, or is it simply that the former is a belief fairly alien to mainstream US culture, while the latter is familiar even to those who don't accept it.

It strikes me as an interesting point. I think I would say that it's not possible to assign probabilities to religious beliefs. One can consider whether they are internally consistent, whether they are consistent with any scriptures on which they may be based, and whether they seem to fit with what we know of the world, but it strikes me as impossible to assign probability to a question like: Was Jesus God?

Now what this means is that to many non religious or non church-going people, especially if their ideas of what goes on in churches on Sunday is mostly informed by odd-ball televangelists which they stumble across while channel surfing, it probably doesn't seem very improbably that most people hear weird conspiracy rants and shouting on a regular basis from the ministers, priests or rabbis. Judging strictly my media portrayal, it wouldn't be hard to get the idea that most sermons have to do with gays, abortion, the end of the world, or damnation.

However, the majority of Americans do enter some kind of religious service pretty regularly, and to those folks, the YouTube videos of the sermons by Obama's pastor do actually look pretty alien. To most church-goers, Reverend Wright shouting "God damn America" to thunderous applause or miming Clinton "riding dirty" on Monica Lewinsky bear no resemblance at all to anything they've seen in a church.

Similarly, the antics and thundering of TV preachers bear little resemblance to anything that most churchgoers see on a regular basis. However much these people may symbolize the "religious right" in the perceptions of many secular Americans, their rhetoric is actually starkly different from what most churchgoers actually hear on Sundays. Which is why it really would be very hard for a politician who attended one of these more fringy right-wing congregations to win a Republican nomination for a high profile office.

In Obama's case, his deepest base of support is not necessarily among churchgoers, so the initial reaction may be, "You have to belong to a church to stand a change for running for high office in this country, and his is probably no more crazy than most."

That may play with a fairly secular audience, but I don't think it will wash in the general election.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Guest Post: Becoming a Revert to Catholicism

An old family friend, himself a fairly recent "revert" to Catholicism emailed me the following, which had started as a comment on the other day's post on grace and forming a relationship with God. But since it had grown too long to be a comment, the author emailed it to me and I thought I'd turn it into a guest post. The author blogs under the name Logeyed Roman over at Forest and Mote -- though not as often as some might wish.


Bottom line: Your only hope is the grace of God, but that’s true for every one of us in all things.

I mention something that basic because of the way I keep forgetting it, and being astonished when I remember it.

You can trust in God and His mercy and grace. But His grace requires a response from us.

I was away from the church for over 30 years, and taking those final steps back was the hardest thing I have ever done. However, all the strength which got me over those last hurdles came from God, not me.

What I found so difficult was to turn everything over to Him. To really turn my will over to His.

After I did that, the rest was relatively downhill. No, it was not a smooth hill with a comfortable slope and a smooth surface. It was more like a broken ridgeline on the Moon or something. Lots of boulders, and ravines that require some uphill climbs. Nevertheless the trend is downhill and as long as I keep turning to God, His grace draws me on like gravity.

The step I first took, which I here recommend to you, was so simple and easy it took me forever to think of it.

So I wanted to trust Him and have faith, but couldn’t take that final step. Finally, I told Him that I was willing for Him to change my heart for me. I was willing to let HIM give me the will and strength to turn back. With that, though the struggle was still long and hard, I had in fact turned the corner. I might still relapse, of course. But now it would take an act of will on my part.

As for the rest, our response to God’s grace includes doing everything we can while trusting the ultimate guidance of our journey to Him.

I concur with the comment that books alone are questionable, though for me they provided essential information and encouragement. But it was contact with good orthodox Catholics which was the most important factor in my reclamation. Prominent among these has been Darwin’s parents and Darwin himself. I have been a friend of the family for decades.

People like Darwin and his parents are in short supply. But if you trust and seek, you will find.

You have some resistance, due to a bad experience with a priest and perhaps with the resistance of your friends. All this is totally understandable to me. I found past mistreatment by Catholics, as well as the fear and hostility to Catholicism which surrounds us, to be formidable obstacles. But such difficulties have been the lot of the faithful all along. Our Savior was in fact crucified by his own people, betrayed by a close friend. In fact the struggles of the faithful go back all the way to Abel, murdered by his own brother for the offense of simply being more devout than Cain. We can expect this situation to improve after Judgment Day.

I bring this up to make the point that these same difficulties have always been the lot of the Faithful. God understands, and the means to overcome these are available. While the details are unique to every individual, our faith journey is a walk to Calvary.

It was pointed out that when Jesus said “My yoke is light”, he was probably referring to the common ox yoke, which was made for TWO. Remember that the cross you are being called to bear will have a Helper alongside, giving you all the help you need.


After prayer, I would suggest scaring up some Catholic friends and counselors. I don’t know the specifics of your situation, and none of us know the exact means God works to help us until after it arrives. But I found it useful to talk to a priest after Mass if I felt I could trust him. I found it useful to volunteer to help with catechism and RCIA. They’ll train you to teach catechism classes, and give you time to prepare ahead of time. You don’t need to be an expert ahead of time. One of the best experiences I had was taking the Archdiocese’s “Ministry Formation” class. Especially for the people; they were committed, friendly, orthodox Catholics. Finally, a good Catholic bookstore might be helpful. Not only to find more books, but to talk to the staff. If you live close enough to one, I especially recommend the bookstores run by the Pauline sisters. There are a number around the country. Their selection of books etc. is excellent and the staff is very helpful.

In the meantime, I might suggest you putting as much consoling and edifying materials into your reading and entertainment that you can. I’m serious. Watch movies with good Catholic messages. The Pauline sisters have a very good selection of videos. Watch things like good Narnia movies, and the “Lord of the Rings” series which embody strong Christian values. Read Scripture (and don’t neglect the Old Testament!). I recommend the Navarre Bible series. These are highly annotated Bible texts, put out by Navarre university. They have the text itself, then along with it, page by page, extensive commentary and explanations. There are several versions. The fanciest one has the Old Testament in like six hardback volumes, and the New Testament in twelve paperbacks. I have the whole set; it took me years, because it’s nearly $200 for the whole thing.

The other books recommended are, I’m sure, excellent. I am familiar with most of them. I will add a few suggestions: “Why Do Catholics Do That?” by Kevin Orlin. It’s both very readable and very well-informed, useful for the seeker, the curious non-Catholic, and the experienced Catholic who can use reminders of the basics. Then there’s “While You Were Away”, I forget the author right now. It’s a guide for returning Catholics about some of the changes in the Church. Finally, I strongly recommend—believe it or not—“Catholicism for Dummies.” Not only does it cover the basics thoroughly, it assiduously explains them for the modern person. One priest says it does this so well that even experienced catechists turn to it for useful arguments and so on to present to curious and sometimes hostile non-Catholics.

Anything by Peter Kreeft is likely to be useful. And of course Benedict 16 and JP II. I also recommend the works of C.S. Lewis. Including the big ones: “Mere Christianity”, “The Screwtape Letters”, “The Problem of Pain”, “Miracles”, and “A Grief Observed.” These are available in a box set of paperbacks; slightly cheaper and more elegant but less portable, they are available in a single volume in a nice hardback. (Cheaper used, of course).

I especially found Lewis useful; he can’t quite match Kreeft’s outstanding philosophical and theological abilities, but Lewis’ work is so literate, even poetic (he wrote a lot of poetry and was always sorry that it was never popular), that I leaned heavily on it for consolation for decades. (Still do.)

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Man Without a Country

There's currently much flap, it seems, over video of Senator Obama's pastor of twenty years giving a sermon in which he shouts rather forcefully that black people should not sing the song "God Bless America" but rather "God Damn America".

One may say many things about about the Reverend Wright's comments, and I'm sure many will, but in my case the fuss reminded me of one of my favorite stories, and thus took me pleasantly out of the here and now.

The Man Without a Country was written by minister Edward Everett Hale, and appeared (anonymously) in the December 1863 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. It tells the story of a young naval officer who is caught up in Aaron Burr's treason shortly before the 1812 war and says, at his court martial for said treason, "God damn the United States. I hope never to hear its name again."

The court chooses to issue that as its sentence.

The story is at once patriotic and deeply humane -- perhaps unsurprisingly as it comes from a time during which the nation was engaged in tearing itself apart in the greatest war it has ever fought. Slightly easier on the eyes than the above reproduction of the original publication in the Atlantic is this electronic version from Bartleby.

It's not a very long read, and much rewards the reader for his trouble. Definately something I would put down as a "must read" in any homeschooled high school or junior high curriculum.

Friday, March 14, 2008

This Week's Weekly Bread

For comparison with my shopping from last week, I offer up this week's grocery run:

The Darwins, Round Rock, TX
Grocery total: 98.49

The little pink thing in front is a rubber duckie we picked up in the checkout line.

When I was younger, my family ate on a tight budget, which seemed to translate to certain kinds of cheap convenience foods. I remember plenty of kraft dinners with hot dogs, hamburger helper, little boxed potpies, canned vegetables, instant mashed potatoes, kool-aid, "family-size" frozen entrees (Salisbury steak, anyone?). I don't know whether it was actually less expensive to buy certain low-budget prepared items than to get fresh ingredients, or if it was just that if you wanted to eat more expensive items like meat for the lowest cost you bought potpies and frozen entrees.

We're fortunate to have a larger food budget than my family, but I'd still rather forgo lots of meat and buy fresh produce instead. Ah, when the garden comes in...

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Grace and Relationship With God

I received an email from a reader which (with the reader's permission) I would like to open up for suggestions. She gives the following background about herself:
A little background… I was raised Catholic and knew the "list" of things to do and not to do, but not the "whys". I didn't even know the church still used a catechism until about two years ago and I went to Catholic schools and university, I'm in my early thirties now. When I went to grad school I was invited to join a campus Bible study/service group. For the first time I felt I was part of an active Christian community. Unfortunately, I didn't realize that it was part of the International Churches of Christ/Boston Movement. I am actually a fairly intelligent person, but in my ignorance, zeal and naivety I joined what I now consider a very unhealthy church borderline cult. I finally left six years later depressed, with a shattered faith and a mild case of post-traumatic stress disorder. After some counseling, group therapy, a move across the country, and time I finally started re-examining my spiritual roots.

Over the last three years I've been reading a lot and in the last year have been seriously considering returning to the Catholic Church. I don't have any serious Catholic friends and my Christian friends think I'm at best a bit crazy and at worst jeopardizing my soul for even contemplating this. I did talk to a priest soon after I left, but it went horribly. I couldn't bring myself to step into a church again for over a year. It's only been recently that I've decided to try again.
The difficulty she's grappling with is building a correct understanding of our proper relationship with God, and including a correct understanding of sin and grace:
I don't know if you know anything about the ICOC, it was a spin off the mainline Churches of Christ. It was a young and vibrant fellowship, filled with immaturity and zealots. Everyone was called to live the same radical Christian life, which meant daily Bible studies, evangelism, fellowship, willingness to give up anything, etc (I know these are good things in right practice, but this was not that). And if you weren't "fired up" enough and being sacrificial enough well then you were ungrateful, lukewarm, and didn't care about the Lost, so then you were thoroughly rebuked with the appropriate scripture, even if it had to be pulled out of context. When you joined you didn't receive this treatment, only slowly as time passed and before you know it you wonder how you ended up in that place. It was truly emotional abuse tied up in your spiritual identity. At some point I knew no matter how much I tried to twist my personality into their "ideal" I couldn't, so I constantly felt that I was a disappointment to God and emotionally detached.
And she asks:
So I guess my question as best I can formulate it right now, is might you have any ideas of how I could proceed in getting a correct balanced view of God, perhaps a certain book or author? Or any other comments/suggestions you might think useful for me. The only advice I've gotten so far is "fake it till you make it", or "just trust God and it'll work out".
Does anyone have specific books, resources or authors to recommend dealing with these kind of issues from the Catholic perspective? I think some good resources on the proper place of the sacraments in our relationship with God and dealing with sin would probably be key, but I can't think of anything right off to recommend.

Czech President on CO2 Emissions

Czech President Vaclav Klaus made news last week by giving a speech in which he "questioned global warming". He may do that as well (I know next to nothing about him and his positions) but the extract from his speech which I ran across in The Australian yesterday is more on the economic difficulties of actually reducing emissions. These arguments may be familiar, but they struck me as fairly well made in this instance, and it also struck me as significant coming from the leader of a nation which is still working to rebuilt itself after communist rule.
I recently looked at the European CO2 emissions data covering the period 1990-2005, the Kyoto protocol era. You don't need huge computer models to very easily distinguish three different types of countries in Europe.

In the less developed countries, Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain, which during this period were trying to catch up with the economic performance of the more developed EU countries, rapid economic growth led to a 53 per cent increase in CO2 emissions. In the post-communist countries, which went through a radical economic restructuring with the heavy industry disappearing, GDP drastically declined. These countries decreased their CO2 emissions in the same period by 32 per cent. In the EU's slow-growing if not stagnating countries (excluding Germany where its difficult to eliminate the impact of the fact that the east German economy almost ceased to exist in that period) CO2 emissions increased by 4 per cent.

The huge differences in these three figures are fascinating. And yet there is a dream among European politicians to reduce CO2 emissions for the entire EU by 30 per cent in the next 13 years compared to the 1990 level.

What does it mean? Do they assume that all countries would undergo a similar economic shock as was experienced by the central and eastern European countries after the fall of communism? Do they assume that economically weaker countries will stop their catching-up process? Do they intend to organise a decrease in the number of people living in Europe? Or do they expect a technological revolution of unheard-of proportions?
It's often said that global warming will hit the poorest the hardest. That statement, however, overlooks the fact that any proposal with a realistic prospect of reducing CO2 emissions at a global level would also hit the poorest countries the hardest.

President Klaus also has what strikes me as a healthy respect for the difficulty of master planning systems:
What I see in Europe, the US and other countries is a powerful combination of irresponsibility and wishful thinking together with the strong belief in the possibility of changing the economic nature of things through a radical political project.

This brings me to politics. As a politician who personally experienced communist central planning of all kinds of human activities, I feel obliged to bring back the already almost forgotten arguments used in the famous plan-versus-market debate in the 1930s in economic theory (between Mises and Hayek on the one side and Lange and Lerner on the other), the arguments we had been using for decades until the moment of the fall of communism. The innocence with which climate alarmists and their fellow-travellers in politics and media now present and justify their ambitions to mastermind human society belongs to the same fatal conceit. To my great despair, this is not sufficiently challenged, neither in the field of social sciences, nor in the field of climatology.

The climate alarmists believe in their own omnipotency, in knowing better than millions of rationally behaving men and women what is right or wrong. They believe in their own ability to assemble all relevant data into their Central Climate Change Regulatory Office equipped with huge supercomputers, in the possibility of giving adequate instructions to hundreds of millions of individuals and institutions.

We have to restart the discussion about the very nature of government and about the relationship between the individual and society. We need to learn the uncompromising lesson from the inevitable collapse of communism 18 years ago. It is not about climatology. It is about freedom.
This does not necessarily mean a refusal to do anything to be responsible about one's environmental impact, I think, but it does point out the inherent problem that comes about when very smart people decide to make the world better: They may know a great deal, but seldom as much as they think.

Our Weekly Bread

A while back, Julie D's food blog Meanwhile, Back in the Kitchen linked to a photo essay in Time Magazine called "What the World Eats". It's a fascinating look at what people around the world eat in a week, and how much they pay for it.

There's probably enough gustatorial diversity in America to make up a separate study, as evidenced by my looking at the two American families featured and thinking, "That doesn't look anything like the way our family eats." And so as an experiment I offer a photo of last week's shopping.

The Darwins, Round Rock, TX
Total for this trip: $112.44
(not pictured: mid-week run to store, bringing weekly total to close to $130)

Now obviously this isn't everything we eat in a week. It doesn't take into account things already in the pantry, like refried beans or flour for the pizza or the farm eggs from the chickens that Darwin's manager raises. But it is a fairly accurate picture of how we shop for food (as this was a trip in which I didn't have to buy diapers, wipes, laundry detergent, or a new broom). We don't tend to buy packaged snacks (the pretzels were an impulse buy after a request from the ladies) or prepared meals, and we don't often eat fast-food or go to restaurants.

I'm curious as to how other families eat. I'll tag anyone who's interested to participate in my informal shopping photo documentary.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jen's new address

Et tu, Jen? has a new URL: . The old address isn't redirecting so well, so if you're one of her readers you'll want to update your bookmarks and/or links.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Inequality, Mobility and Family Size

There was a pretty solid piece in the WSJ yesterday about income inequality and family size in the US. It's fairly often stated (especially in election years) that all of the income growth in our economy goes to the "rich", while the poor are left behind. One of the standard ways of proving this is pointing to the Census Bureau's five income quartiles and observing that in inflation adjusted dollars the bottom quintile of households has seen a flat upper limit income since 1970 (22k to 25k from 1970 to 2006).

Schiller's WSJ piece points out that the household income figures mask a huge change in American society during those 35 years.
The "typical" household, however, keeps changing. Since 1970 there has been a dramatic rise in divorced, never-married and single-person households. Back in 1970, the married Ozzie and Harriet family was the norm: 71% of all U.S. households were two-parent families. Now the ratio is only 51%. In the process of this social revolution, the average household size has shrunk to 2.57 persons from 3.14 -- a drop of 18%. The meaning? Even a "stagnant" average household income implies a higher standard of living for the average household member.

Last year, the Census Bureau published a new set of income statistics that adjusted for changing household size and composition. In a single year (2006), this "equivalence-adjusted" computation increased the income share of the poor by 8% and reduced the standard measure of inequality (Gini coefficient) by 4%. Such "equivalency" adjustments would mute unadjusted inequality trends even more.

A closer look at household trends reveals that the percentage of one-person households has jumped to 27% from 17%. That's right: More than one out of four U.S. households now has only one occupant. Who are these people? Overwhelmingly, they are Generation Xers whose good jobs and high pay have permitted them to move out of their parental homes and establish their own residences. The rest are largely seniors who have enough savings and income to escape from their grandchildren and enjoy the serenity of an independent household. Both transitions are evidence of rising affluence, not increasing hardship. Yet this splintering of the extended family exerts strong downward statistical pressure on the average income of U.S. households.
This reminded me of a discussion of household income inequality I'd heard on the EconTalk webcast in which Thomas Sowell was interviewed about his book Economic Facts and Fallacies. He also talked about the household income quintiles, and observed that the difference in household size between to top and bottom quintiles was so stark that there are 39 million people in the bottom 20% of households while there are 64 million people in the top 20%. I haven't been able to find data in some quick browsing around the Census Bureau to dig into that more, but I do recall from looking into poverty stats that the poverty rate for married households is around 5%, for families in general it's about 10%, and for "female householder with no male present" households is 30%.

Another thing that Schiller points out is that the membership in these income quintiles is far from static. There was a great WSJ piece on this a while back which discussed a study comparing 1996 and 2005 tax returns by income quintile. I've included the basic chart from that article at the left, but it's worth reading. This ties pretty well with my own experience of the last ten years.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Why I hate Daylight Savings Time

I put a fancy-schmancy coffee cake in the oven this morning and settled down to surf the 'net and see what the news was. In passing I see a note about Daylight Savings Time. "What?" says Darwin. "It's not Daylight Savings Time yet, is it?"

"No, of course not," I laugh.

"Well, hon, the clock in the kitchen says 9:10, and the clock on the computer says 10:10."

I swear this happens every year. Good thing Mass isn't until 11:30...

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Poverty and Abortion: A New Analysis

There has, for some time now, been an argument floating around out there (mostly among progressive-minded pro-lifers) that perhaps electing pro-choice Democrats is actually more useful in reducing abortion than electing pro-life Republicans, because Democrats reduce poverty and poverty is is tied to abortion. Among Catholic blogs, Vox Nova writer Mornings Minion wrote a statistical analysis of sorts six months back which he continues to point to as proving strong connection between poverty and abortion. In the wider world, Fuller Theological Seminary ethicist Glen Harold Stassen authored a pair of articles back in 2004 arguing (based on what later proved to be drastically incomplete data) that the number of abortions had risen under George W. Bush, and attributing this to Bush's economic policies. Stassen's analysis was then quoted (with rapidly decreasing degrees of accuracy) by Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and finally Howard Dean, who asserted that abortions have gone up 25% under Bush. (see above link to

Once it became clear that the data did not even remotely support the claim that abortion had increased under Bush, Stassen and others fell back on asserting that while it was true that the overall drop in abortion rates had continued under Bush, that the rate of its decrease had slowed, and that this was the result of an increase in poverty under Bush.

Now from a moral point of view, I think one must conclude that the point is irrelevant. Individual human beings are moral agents and as such, although they may find themselves under huge temptation to sin based on external pressures, they are free to choose right or wrong action. Thus, while it may be that in a period of relative prosperity people feel less pressure to commit certain crimes and/or sins, we must not see the duty of society to be simply to make sure everyone is too wealthy to want to sin; rather society must retain a strong enough moral sense to encourage right behavior in good times and in bad.

However, after hearing this argument one too many times, I decided to go dig into the data and see if even the strictly factual side of it is true. So far as I can tell, the argument has the following components:

1) Economic well-being (as measured by a low poverty rate and a high median income) has been greater under Democratic administrations than Republican ones in the last 30 years.

2) Abortion rates have either been lower or have decreased faster under Clinton than under Reagan, HW Bush or W Bush.

3) There is a strong correlation between economic well-being and the abortion rate.

I'm going to argue that all of these are partly or wholly false.

First, let's look at how the percentage of individuals below the poverty rate has fluctuated since 1976:

I've marked out the presidential administration on the chart, and I also marked the 1996 welfare reform act, since that appeared to align with an inflection point. It may also be worth noting that according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, there were recession troughs on July 1980, November 1982, March 1991 and November 2001. (Data drawn from US Census data here and here.)

Now let's look at the percentage of individuals below the poverty line, the percentage of families below the poverty line, and the median household income for the last four administrations:

As you can see, what we have is a steadily improving economic trend throughout the period. You can argue that the Clinton administration provided a better economy than Reagan and H. W. Bush did, but only if you concede that W. Bush has done an even better job than Clinton. (It is, of course, possible that the 2007 and 2008 years will put Bush below Clinton, but it seems unlikely that the economy will get bad enough this year to counteract the weight of the early Clinton years. At most, it will make the Bush administration less of an improvement over the Clinton one.) Going back farther, Carter and Nixon/Ford had the lowest poverty rates of any recent president(~11.9%), while JFK/LBJ had by far the highest (~17.5%). The does not seem to be any clear correlation between administration party and economic well being. Instead, the macro trend is that poverty has been steadily declining and median income has been steadily rising throughout the period since 1960.

Let us turn now to abortion rates and any correlation they may show with economic data. The Guttmacher Institute is generally considered the most reliable source for data on abortion in the United States. They are somewhat affiliated with Planned Parenthood, but their data is used and respected by those on both sides of the abortion debate. In their data they provide two statistics which are population-adjusted: Abortion Rate and Abortion Ratio. The former is the number of abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. The later is the percentage of pregnancies (which end in either live birth or intentional abortion) which ended in abortion. Thus, the rate gives us a good idea of the population-adjusted frequency of abortion within society, while the ratio allows us to control for lower incidence of pregnancy due to contraception. (Guttmacher data below is drawn from this study.)

The macro trend in abortion rate and ratio is that abortion skyrocketed from 1973 (when Roe v. Wade effectively removed nearly all abortion regulation) through 1980, when both flattened off and began to drop. In 1980, 30% of all pregnancies ended in abortion.

The graph above selects data from 1980 through 2006. I'm assuming that the rapid increase in abortions from 1973 is the result of increasing social acceptance and availability, and thus can not be expected to correlate to any factor under examination other than availability and lack of regulation.

As you can see, the downward trend in abortion ratio and rate is very clear. I've plotted the rate against a simple linear trendline, and the relation between these shows an R-Squared of 0.96. The trend for the poverty rate is also downwards from 1980 to 2006, but the slope is much more gentle and the correlation to a simple linear trendline is much lower (0.5). It would be most accurate to say that the poverty rate is oscillating with a slight downward trend. Yes, there is something of a correlation between the abortion rate and ratio and the poverty rate, but only to the extent that both are generally trending downward.

Let's try to get a good visual feel for this. On the top chart, I've plotted the abortion rate against the poverty rate. The RSQ is .47. On the bottom chart, I've charted the abortion rate against the number of years since 1980. The RSQ is .96.

So, based on the trends of the last 25 years, if you wanted to successfully predict what the abortion rate will be in a given year, you're going to be far more accurate if you base your projection on the relation between the number of years since 1980 than if you base it on the poverty rate.

But let's try something else. Say that we look at all the periods during which the poverty rate was going up and see if the abortion rate went up or went down less in those years. The following chart selects the three periods since 1979 when the poverty rate went up year over year.

The trend is actually very interesting. As the poverty rate was rising sharply from 1979 through 1982, the abortion rate dropped. The same thing happened during the poverty rate rises of 1990-1993 and 2001-2004. Even more interesting, however, is that during these first two downturns, although the abortion rate levelled in the first case and continued dropping in the second, the abortion ratio increased during both of those periods. What that means is that although women were not getting abortions at a higher rate during these periods, they were conceiving at a higher rate. People avoided pregnancy at a higher rate (thus decreasing the number of planned pregnancies) but did not abort at a higher rate.

If people were aborting more because of the rise in poverty, one would expect to see the actual abortion rate go up during these periods. Instead, we see that people avoided pregnancy (thus decreasing the percentage of total pregnancies which were "planned pregnancies") but actually reduced the rate at which they aborted.

Perhaps because the increase in poverty under the current administration has not been as severe, as those in the early 80s and early 90s, there has been no rise in either the abortion rate or ratio during that increase in poverty rate.

But has the rate of decline in the abortion rate and ratio slowed under Bush as compared to Clinton?

At first it might appear so. During the Clinton administration the abortion rate declined an average of 0.55% per year, versus 0.38% per year from 2001 to 2005 (more current data is not yet available from Guttmacher.) However, something interesting appears when we look at the abortion ratio, which has declined more rapidly under Bush than under Clinton. So the apparent Clinton advantage is a result of an overall decrease in pregnancy under Clinton. If we control that by looking at the ratio (the percentage of pregnant women who abort) we find that it has actually declined faster under Bush than under Clinton.

This got me interested in looking at how the pregnancy rate and the abortion ratio are related. I used the abortion ratio and the total number of abortions from the Guttmacher data and combined them with the annual total population figures from the Census Bureau. To get a roughly accurate female population figure, I divided the US population in half. Then I used the abortion ratio and the total number of abortions to calculate the total number of pregnancies, and I divided those by the female population to get a pregnancy rate. (One of the reasons this rate runs so low is that this would be total female population, not just the female population of childbearing age.) I charted these two rates below. (Note that this chart flows in the opposite direction from the others in regards to date.)

This perhaps begins to hint at some of the real causes of abortion trends over the last thirty years. Note that right after Roe the pregnancy rate increases by 25% over eight years. During the same period, the abortion ratio increases 50%. In effect, by decreasing the obstacles to ending an unwanted pregnancy, Roe significantly increased the number of unwanted pregnancies, resulting, in fact, in a net increase in births. As the abortion ratio has consistently fallen over the last twenty years, the total number of pregnancies has fallen back into a more normal trendline.

Why has abortion really been falling? I think it's significant that the abortion rate is falling in such a tight correlation to the number of years since the peak. This indicates, it seems, some sort of self-correcting mechanism going on. Perhaps it's partly a re-introduction of restrictions on abortion, both cultural and legal. Perhaps it's partly a build-up of painful experience, which has overcome the initial impression that the costs of getting pregnant (and getting out of getting pregnant) are not as high as they were before 1973. Either way, it seems that some force that is building with time is continuing to drive the abortion rate down without any current signs of slowing.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Taking back the sexy

The marketing geniuses at Victoria's Secret have recently had a revelation: maybe you can overdo sexy.

Victoria's Secret likes to ask in its marketing, "What is sexy?" Now the lingerie chain is trying to figure out, "What's too sexy?"

The chief executive of the brand known for its provocative televised fashion shows and alluring stores made an admission yesterday. In her mind, the brand has become "too sexy" -- or at least the wrong kind of sexy.

"We have so much gotten off our heritage," CEO Sharen Jester Turney said in a conference call with analysts. Responding to the past year's weak sales and focus-group feedback, she said, "We will return to an ultra-feminine lingerie brand to meet [customer] needs and expectations."

Now, I'm going to come out and say it: frankly my dear, I don't want to go around all the time feeling sexy. Thank God that those hormonal days of youth, in which one spent most of the time either thinking or trying not to think about sex, are past!

Perhaps it has become financially obvious (and what other kind of obvious is there, marketing-wise?) that a relentless emphasis on defining your brand as "sexy, sexy, SEXY" may start to grind on the core customer base, most of whom a) do not have the body they did at nineteen, and b) do not desire to be classified as skanks, and therefore want to look good with their clothes on.

I like the idea of "ultra-feminine". It implies a foundational garment with superior support that is pretty. "Sexy" implies scanty and flimsy, and does no practical good if the concept can't translate into actually looking fine on a real female body. Is underwear that makes you look fat really sexy? I don't think so, Victoria's Secret, and so I applaud your move into "ultra-feminine" territory. Everyone wins when real aesthetics trump fake aesthetics.

Now, if you'd do something about your sleazy posters in the mall window, I'd really be grateful.

Welcome to baby Sophia

Our congratulations to the Bettinellis, who welcomed Sophia Therese into the world yesterday.

Why A Right to Bear Arms?

Patrick of Orthonormal Basis pointed out that my post yesterday about Prof. Tribe's view on the second ammendment and DC's handgun ban didn't necessarily fully make the case I was attempting to make.
I'm not sure about your critique of Dr. Tribe. He doesn't here deny the possibility that a law-abiding citizen might have good reasons for preferring a handgun to other firearms, and I don't think you deny that there are also reasons why citizens might collectively prefer that nobody have access to handguns. (Whether the government can effectively prevent the distribution of illegal handguns is, of course, another question.)

Just because the government might have the authority and good reason to prohibit something, doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate uses that will get proscribed as well. The law can't be perfect.
Reading this, I realized that I hadn't fully laid out my thought process, perhaps in part due to my habit of writing blog posts over the course of brief interruptions in work over several hours.

I think that Prof. Tribe makes a potentially solid point that a right to bear arms does not necessarily mean a right to bear any arms that one pleases anywhere one likes. No one sane, clearly, is arguing that citizens be able to buy anti-tank rockets or .50 caliber machine guns.

However, I think it stretches a bit when he then turns around and argues that this means it is clearly acceptible to ban all handguns. Handguns account for roughtly half the guns manufactured and/or sold in the United States, so we're not talking about some small subset here.

More to the point, however, it seems to me that this line of thinking runs contrary to any reasonable purpose one might give to the second ammendment. Very often, it's argued that the second ammendment protects people's right to have guns "for hunting and sport". Now, I'm sure that in the late 1700s many people had a reasonable reliance on hunting rifle to provide a significant portion of their diet, but does it really seem to make sense that it is actually "hunting and sport" which resulted in the second ammendment being added to the constitution? Certainly, there's nothing in the text of the ammendment itself which would suggest such a purpose.

Rather, it seems to me that the purpose is explicitly defense against tyrrany and (by what seems like a very reasonable extension) defense of one's family and property in general.

This is where I think Prof. Tribe's perference to retain all current gun restrictions in DC runs into trouble. There is, unfortunately, a lot of overlap between what makes a good offensive weapon at close quarters and a good defensive weapon at close quarters. And so the current gun laws in DC have the unfortunate effect of banning just about all the guns (handguns, short-barrelled semi-automatic carbines: "assault rifles", and short barrelled folding stock shotguns: "tactical shotguns") which would be of most utility in the purpose for which a reasonable interpretation of the second ammendment would suggest guns should be allowed. In contrast, the guns which are legal in DC are those best suited for hunting medium to large game and for fouling -- activities which are clearly impractical and illegal within city limits.

Now, I certainly know some good and well-intentioned people who would rather not see civilians owning guns for the purpose of self defense, and would rather see all such activities done by civil authorities. That's a view which can legitimately be debated. But it seems to me that the bill of rights which we currently have pretty clearly deliniates a right to armed self defense.