11 January 2017

Celebrating Christmas and Opposing Hell

Stephen Kershnar
Underlying Christmas is the Offensive Doctrine of Hell
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 26, 2016

            Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is a fun, beautiful, and loving holiday. While Jesus’ birthday is not known, it is most often celebrated on December 25th. The holiday celebrates the idea that God came into the world as a man to atone for other men’s sins. Underlying this picture, though, is the threat of hell. Hell is everlasting suffering that is forced onto those who fail to love God, are unrepentant sinners, or otherwise fail to avail themselves of the benefits of Jesus’ sacrifice. Thus, a joyous holiday has in the background one of the most mean-spirited doctrines in all of Christianity.

The belief in permanent hell or annihilation is part of the Catholic and many Protestant traditions. The notion that many will not be saved can be seen in Luke 13:23 and Matt 7:13-14. In addition, the New Testament appears to refer to hell. For example, there are references to “everlasting destruction” (Thessalonians 1:9), “eternal fire” (Jude 7), “tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10). On some lines of Catholicism and Protestantism, then, God sends some people, the devil, and some fallen angels to hell.

The argument that God would not send human beings to hell is straightforward. God would send someone to hell only if justice permits it as a means of punishing them. Justice permits such a punishment only if someone has does something infinitely wrong or has an infinitely bad character. Human beings do not meet either condition.

            Consider whether a human beings could do anything to another human beings that might result in their deserving an infinite punishment, such as hell. In general, a person cannot infinitely wrong another person and rarely, if ever, tries to do so. Killing, murder, and rape are finite wrongs in that they cause others a finite amount of lost years or suffering. Murdering a young man, for example, might take away seventy wonderful years, but this is still a finite loss.

The only chance one person has to infinitely wrong another is to send the second to hell. This might happen, for example, when one person kills an atheist immediately before he was about to repent his sins and atheism. But a person they can’t send another to hell unless hell already exists. This begs the question as to why God would create hell. It makes no sense to create hell if the only thing someone can do to deserve it is to send another there.   

            People also cannot do anything to God that would result in their deserving hell. Most people do not wrong God. More specifically, people do not violate God’s rights by touching his body or taking his stuff. Nor do they directly harm him in other ways. Few, if any, even try to wrong God. They wrong other people through murder, rape, theft, etc., but this does not wrong God unless he owns people. God doesn’t own people because they’re not his property. Specifically, God doesn’t own people the way that ranchers own cattle. Even if human beings were to wrong God by killing or damaging his property, the wrong is not infinitely serious unless, again, hell exists.

One objection is that God does not impose hell. Rather it is a choice of the people who choose to separate themselves from God. However, if God intentionally makes the consequences of people’s choices harsh, this makes it a punishment. Consider this analogy. If a school principal sets up a system whereby the janitor whips students who get caught dealing drugs, he punishes them, even if, in some sense, they’ve made themselves liable for the harsh treatment. Similarly, if God sets up a system when people suffer greatly for refusing to accept him in their lives or for sinning, he punishes them.

A second objection is that in allowing people to go to hell, God merely refuses to provide them with wonderful benefits rather than harming them. By analogy, if a man pays for only some neighborhood children to go to a fancy private school, he doesn’t wrong those whom he doesn’t pay for. The idea here is that hell is separation from God and with it comes the loss of his love as well as the loss of purpose and community. Because there is no duty to give out these wonderful benefits, those sent to hell have not been punished. However, if someone can provide a wonderful benefit to another and can do so at no cost to himself, failure to do so indicates too little love and kindness. Sending persons to heaven is a benefit that God can provide at no cost to himself and hence his failure to do so would show that he has too little love and kindness. This is impossible for a perfect being. 

A third objector might respond that life in heaven is only possible for a person who chooses to join God. Heaven, the objector argues, would be miserable for someone who does not accept God or rejoice in his love. The idea here is that a human being who does not deserve heaven would suffer there because he is unsuited to join God. However, in accord with love and kindness, God would then provide a life that is as good as possible for those unsuited to join him. He would not condemn them to eternal fiery punishment. If this is not possible, then a perfect being like God would annihilate them rather than send them to hell.

It is a shame that such a joyous holiday celebrates the fact that the celebrants will avoid hell while many of their brethren will roast in the eternal fire. Better to have a doctrine based on love. Better yet, a doctrine that is true. 

14 December 2016

College Presidents Respond to Students' Trauma over Trump's Election

Stephen Kershnar
A Mistaken Response to Donald Trump’s Election
Dunkirk Fredonia Observer
December 5, 2016

            A fight has broken out over how university administrators should respond to Donald Trump’s election. Underlying the fight is the question of how universities should view students.

            A number of university presidents responded to Trump’s election by reporting students’ traumatic feelings. Consider the comments of State University of New York at Fredonia’s president Virginia Horvath. “[T]here was considerable disappointment in the room as the numbers of electoral votes moved closer to 270. ... Students of Color, LGBTQ students, international students, students with disabilities were dismayed—not a strong enough word—and reported to me, again and again, that the country apparently voted that they don’t matter.” She continued, “There was a lot of confusion and shock. A number of people reported physical signs of trauma: sick to their stomachs, shaking, and numb. Many were crying and holding one another.”

            She then channeled their sense of oppression, “The social media comments from students continued through the rest of the night, with people expressing fear, inability to sleep, anger, and profound sadness at what they saw as affirmations of the racism, misogyny, and disrespect they associated with the campaign.” Horvath said what university presidents across the country were saying.

            University of Colorado at Boulder president Phillip DiStefano said, “You may find yourself with friends, classmates or colleagues who do not share the same reactions as you. … In some cases, you, or others close to you, may feel you are experiencing or witnessing negative treatment or more subtle forms of oppression, perhaps related to the election or perhaps because of your race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, country of origin, political thought or other aspect of your identity.” DiStefano then gave therapeutic advice in telling students and others how to respond to the election, “Connect with friends, family, a community or a safe space to ground and support you. … Take care of basic needs such as eating, sleeping and drinking water. Incorporate activities that recharge and relax you.”

            Students elsewhere reacted similarly. The Daily Signal reported that at an event sponsored by Planned Parenthood, Cornell University students staged a “cry-in” following Clinton’s defeat. Students dressed in black and held signs saying “He’s not my president” and similar things. At American University, 200 students gathered in protest and some burned an American flag. UCLA students burned a Trump piƱata. Yale students responded with a coordinated primal scream.

            Writing in WorldNetDaily.com, conservative intellectual Jack Cashill criticized Horvath’s comments. First, he argued that Horvath was wrong to take the charge of racism seriously and that her doing so defamed Chautauqua County residents. He argued that Chautauqua County voted for Obama in 2008 and this is evidence that the county is not racist.

I might add that Trump is well-known as a long-time supporter of the gay community, both financially and personally, and well before it became popular to do so. He even opposed the North Carolina bathroom law. None of this is news to anyone who followed the election. 

Second, Cashill claimed that Fredonia students had a demeaning view of the county’s voters. He argued that voters’ preferences for Trump were not unreasonable.  He points out that the county’s poverty rate is 20% and 57% of the county’s students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. The county’s voters might reasonably have thought that the status quo is not cutting it and preferred policies other than more debilitating handouts. Cashill suggested that Horvath should have shown more respect for the county’s residents by telling the students, “You sniveling little elitist. Grow up quick or get the hell out of here.”

Third, encouraging hothouse-flower sensitivity is not good for the students. The country is split along two very different worldviews and the left will not win every vote or Supreme Court decision. Validating students’ trauma, shock, and crying suggests that such oversensitivity is legitimate. Americans, including leading intellectuals, differ as to whether the Bible prohibits homosexuality, whether it should let in another 25% of Mexico, and whether the government should further socialize medicine and education. Students would gain more by rigorously discussing these issues than by citing trauma to excuse themselves from engaging with their opponents. Even if they are confident in the left’s solutions to these issues, students might still learn about the reasons that best support these solutions, improve their ability to think through such issues, or gain some helpful insight in the otherwise mistaken conservative views.

Fourth, there is no doubt that if, following the election, evangelical Christians, pro-lifers, or College Republicans were depressed, angry, or crying, college presidents wouldn't worry about them, let alone send out memos asking us to sympathize with their trauma. In crediting their concern with voters' racism, homophobia, etc. the presidents adopt the view of the far left critics of Trump voters. This is not an intellectually respectable position. Even if it were, they are free to broadcast their views, but should not use state channels to do so.  

The broader issue is whether universities should view students as adults and intellectuals or as vulnerable teenagers who shouldn’t be expected to handle political discussions. By comparison, no one would say the same thing about young Marines disappointed by the election that they said about students. Universities will eventually have to decide whether to continue to spend more on therapeutic and other support services and less on classroom programs, especially in the most demanding majors (for example, chemistry, math, and history). They will also have to decide whether to encourage the faculty to lower standards to match some students’ poor work habits, psychological vulnerabilities, and inadequate college preparation. These decisions dovetail with the attitude one takes toward them as disappointed voters.  

Universities shouldn’t baby students about the election. It validates a false and demeaning view of voters, encourages oversensitivity, and reflects universities’ far left bias. It also incorporates a view of students as children rather than adult intellectuals.   

30 November 2016

Sustainability: A Sloppy Notion

Stephen Kershnar
The Sustainability Movement
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 22, 2016

            The sustainability movement on American campuses is incredibly powerful. The problem is that it is unclear what sustainability is or whether it is worth pursuing.

            Universities are focusing on sustainability with religion-like fervor. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHA), there roughly 1,300 environmental programs in the U.S., with at least one program in each state. According to the U.S. Colleges and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, roughly 700 colleges and universities signed a pledge to eliminate or offset all greenhouse gas emissions and to integrate sustainability into the curriculum. AASHA reports that there are now more than 400 student-led fossil fuel divestment campaigns in the U.S. Twenty-two U.S. universities have announced plans to eliminate their investments in fossil fuels. Hundreds of U.S. universities submit to an environmental tracking and rating system.

            The conservative faculty group, National Association of Scholars, argues that the sustainability movement has further politicized many campuses by making sustainability an educational commitment rather than an idea to be discussed and debated. It also charges that campuses are spending large amounts of money on sustainability projects and positions and doing so in ways that are not financially transparent. 

            One problem with this movement is that it is not clear what sustainability is. Dictionary.com defines “sustainability” as “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” 

One concern is what time period is relevant to long-term ecological balance. There are roughly 7.5 billion people on the planet. This is historically unprecedented. As recently as 10,000 years ago, there were no more than a few million people. There were not even one billion people until the 1800’s and only two billion in the 1920’s. The population could explode to reach 10 billion by the middle of the century. It is unclear if the long-term ecological balance is that found with 7.5 billion people or an earlier period with far fewer people. A later baseline allows for more pollution than does an earlier baseline. Picking one time period rather than another, though, is arbitrary and good policy should not depend on an arbitrary baseline.

            A second concern here is whether the ecological balance that matters for sustainability changes over time. Eco-systems change with the changing climate and evolution. The last ice age ended 10,000 years ago and it included a different set of mammals. This included mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, massive cousins of the armadillo (Glyptodon), giant ground sloths, heavy ancient wolves (dire wolves), giant short-faced bears, and so on. Over the long run, animal and plant species come and go along with natural climate change and new competitors. It is implausible that people should try to protect some species against potential replacements.  

            If people have no duty to protect current plant and animal species that are threatened by natural changes in the environment, then it is unclear why they have a duty to protect them when they are threatened by manmade changes in the environment. That is, it is hard to see what moral duty allows people to sit idly by when a natural change in the environment wreaks havoc on some types of animals, but requires them to spring into action when manmade changes have the same effect.

            If the concern is instead that harm to the environment will endanger people’s health and lives, then a third concern arises, namely, whether sustainability is designed to protect people or the environment. The two can, and sometimes do, diverge. Eliminating all manmade greenhouse gases in the near future would be unbelievably expensive. It would make billions of people poorer, shorten lives, and worsen health. Still, eliminating these gases might preserve various eco-systems. The question is whether sustainability aims to protect eco-systems, protect people’s well-being, or both. If it aims at both, then there is the issue of how to trade off people’s interests against those of the environment (specifically, the interests of animals who inhabit the environment). Without a deeper theory to explain whether there should be tradeoffs and how to think of them, the goal of sustainability is arbitrary and unjustified.

            Philosophy provides various theories that would explain how to trade off animals’ and people’s interests. The best of them, utilitarianism, tells us that we should adopt those policies that maximize pleasure among all individuals, regardless of whether it is a person or animal. The problem is that if additional people lower utility by displacing too many animals, then such a theory would require that there be far fewer people and their consumption be cut back. This might be done by harshly taxing couples for having more than one child (or, perhaps, incarcerating them) and curtailing immigration from poor countries to rich ones. This might also be done by a host of new and onerous taxes on energy use, such as a value-added tax and higher taxes on gas, roads, cars, flights, and so on.

Worse, utilitarianism might require that people artificially change environments so that they support more utility-enjoying animals. This opens the door to questions such as whether there are too many or too few killer whales or elephants in the same way that it opens the door to whether there are too many or too few Chinese or Indians. Utilitarianism does not necessarily require that we not harm the environment. If utilitarianism justifies sustainability, then sustainability is not a fundamental goal. 

A fourth concern is what constitutes harm to the environment. There is an issue as to whether it consists of a setback to the number of species (diversity), amount of life (biomass), or some combination of these things. If it consists of a combination, then, again, we need a justification of when a loss of one at the expense of the other would constitute harm. In addition, further issues arise such as whether the mere addition of a species to an environment that lessens neither diversity nor biomass harms the environment. 

            In the absence of a principled theory, sustainability should not be given so many resources in academia. Universities should reconsider their sustainability faculty and staff hires, dazzling array of sustainability classes, recycling and other environmental programs, etc. Also, the unquestioning commitment to sustainability should be revisited. No longer should it receive the faith-based acceptance that is more appropriate for a religion than a campus program of study.