12 December 2018

The War on Christmas: Is the truth of Christianity relevant to it?

Stephen Kershnar
Original Sin and the War on Christmas
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
December 10, 2018

            The war on Christmas is an attempt by the government and private companies to avoid mentioning Christmas or its religious content. Schools, stores, and advertisers are soldiers in the war. Partly in response to the war, some religious folk encourage people to keep Christmas focused on Christ. An interesting issue is whether the war is justified.
            Christianity has a number of problematic doctrines. Examples include atonement (Christ can be punished or, perhaps, pay for other people’s sins), transubstantiation (all of Jesus can be located in each of many different wafers), and the trinity (the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are distinct and yet only one person).  

            Perhaps the most bizarre religious doctrine, though, is the doctrine of original sin. The Catholic version (seen in Catechism of the Catholic Church and Catholic Encyclopedia and other places) holds that through his sin, Adam caused the human race to face not only bodily death, but to also have evil desires that produce a tendency to sin. Adam’s sin was so monstrous that not only did he lose holiness and justice, but he lost it for almost everyone else. This sin so stains humanity that infants have to be baptized to wash it out of them. The original sin that Adam brought about is not universal, though. The Virgin Mary was conceived without original sin.

Some Protestantism lines adopt a similar position. This was true of some of its leaders. Consider, for example, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564). Nor was this position plucked out of thin air. It is a plausible interpretation of the Old Testament (see Psalms 51:5) and New Testament (see Romans 5:12-21 and Corinthians 15:21-22). Mormons and most Jews reject this doctrine, but have plenty of other problematic doctrines.  

            St. Augustine (354-430) believed that original sin was so serious that unbaptized infants who die early go to hell. However, the Catholic Church’s current position is that it does not know what happens to them. It instructs members that they can hope that such infants go to heaven rather than in Limbo or to hell. Still, a grieving parent can’t rule out that her miscarried or aborted fetus or tragically dead infant might be in Limbo or Hell, perhaps even permanently.

            The doctrine of original sin has problems. First, what did Adam do that was so bad that he stained not only himself, but also humanity? He (and, perhaps also, Eve) was disobedient to God and consumed forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is hard to see why this is a sin given that he wasn’t blameworthy for doing it. He wasn’t blameworthy because he didn’t know disobedience is wrong. He didn’t know it was wrong because such knowledge requires his knowing good and evil (and this came about from eating the fruit).

            Second, even if it were sinful to eat the forbidden fruit, it is hard to see why this result in future people being in a fallen state when they didn’t perform the sin. In general, one person cannot be blamed for what another does unless both are part of a conspiracy. People today did not conspire with Adam. Even if a fallen state is not strictly speaking sin, it is unclear how Adam could have done something that resulted in people thousands of years later lacking holiness, justice, and (sanctifying) grace.

            Third, even if Adam did sin and a son can be blamed for his father’s sin, one wonders why God would not simply give people holiness, justice, and grace. That is, did God have a good reason to deny them these things? If he did have a good reason, then it is this reason, rather than Adam’s sin, that explains why they are in a fallen state. If God does not have a good reason, then he harms them or, at least, refuses to benefit them for no good reason. We expect more from him.    

            Fourth, science gives us no reason to think that there ever was a Garden of Eden, tree of knowledge of good and evil, or that early humans or apes were free of envious, lustful, and violent desires. Thus, the doctrine fits poorly with science.

            Should the problems with Christianity provide a justification for the war on Christmas? The motivation for the war in the context of government rests on concerns about the separation of church and state. In the private sector, its motivation is not causing unnecessary offense. It doesn’t rest on whether Christianity is plausible.

There is nothing wrong with government or businesses using their resources to make people happy even if it does so by catering to an implausible worldview. Still, if large number of people believed in the moral views of the Westboro Baptist Church or the metaphysical views of Mormonism or Scientology, it would seem that the destructive or false nature of such belief systems might be a good reason not to cater to them.

If this is correct, and I am not sure it is, then perhaps whether the government or businesses cater to Christianity should also be evaluated with regard to whether it is destructive or false. The doctrine of original sin suggests that some lines of Christianity would not fare well when evaluated for truth. It is less clear if Christianity is destructive. The religion’s costs and benefits are so complex and extensive that is nearly impossible to determine whether people would have been better off without it.  

Still, Christmas is a joyous and beautiful holiday. It would be a shame for businesses and other private groups to tamp it down merely to avoid offending hyper-sensitive babies. Perhaps a good rule might be that if promoting a holiday makes many people happy, then in the absence of a strong evidence of a comparable cost, it is fine to promote it.

30 November 2018

SUNY Fredonia: Declining Student Enrollment and Quality

Stephen Kershnar
Fredonia Undergoes Surgery
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 16, 2018

            Fredonia State has decided to undergo life-saving surgery. Quoted in The Observer, President Horvath said the structural deficit for this academic year was projected to be $12 million. There is another massive structural deficit projected for next year.  
Facing these difficulties, the college tentatively plans to surgically cut out programs such as applied mathematics, art history, French, philosophy, and some fine arts programs (ceramics, film, and sculpture). It also tentatively plans to cut the English and biology departments’ graduate programs as well as graduate education programs in the education and math departments. Disclosure: I chair the philosophy department.

            The alleged emergency is caused by a sharp decline in the quantity and quality of students at Fredonia. Consider first quantity. The student body has fallen 20% in eight years from the enrollment high water mark to its current level (5,775 in 2009 to 4,631 in 2017). It now has, roughly 1,100 fewer students. Fewer students means less revenue. The structural deficit came about in part because each year between 2009 and 2015, the number of students decreased while spending increased.

            Consider, next, quality. The number of weak high school students (bottom half of their high school class) has increased by 65% in the last five years (15.8% to 26.1% of Fredonia’s incoming class). This underestimates the increase given that an incredible 29% don’t report their high school rank. Assuming that they have the same distribution of high school ranking as the rest of the incoming students, roughly a third of incoming Fredonia students were in the bottom half of their high school class. Over the same period, the acceptance rate has climbed upward (52% to 65%).

These things matter because student ability (measured by SAT score and class rank) predict a student’s likelihood of graduating from college and performance while there.

Along with this change in student ability, retention is a problem. Many of the students who transfer out of Fredonia go to community colleges, suggesting that some were not ready for the rigor of a four-year college or didn’t want to be too far away from home. It is unclear if retention explains why Fredonia has a lower graduation rate than a number of its competitors such as Brockport, Geneseo, New Paltz, Oneonta, and Oswego (U.S. Department of Education numbers).

            In comparative student ability, the college has held steady. Among comprehensive SUNY colleges, it is tied for having the sixth smartest students (out of the ten comprehensives that provide a SAT range). In order of student ability as measured by SATs, Fredonia ranks behind Geneseo, New Paltz, Oswego/Cortland, and Brockport. It is tied with Oneonta.

Fredonia is far behind the major university centers (in order of student ability) Binghamton, Stony Brook, Buffalo, and Albany. It’s worth noting that two of the four university centers have students who are, on average, noticeably better than Geneseo students. Buffalo and Geneseo students are on par.

            Fredonia State frantically pursues diversity. Here the college had less success. According to a recent study by the USC Race and Equity Center, Fredonia received an F in the diversity equity index. In fact, it received the lowest score of any SUNY college. For those of us who think diversity is unimportant, this is no big deal. If Fredonia State poured resources into pursuing it, though, this is a problem.

            There is good news on the campus as well. The college regularly has outstanding students (often in my classes). They end up doing very well in areas such as law and business and, also, in their family lives. The faculty is peppered with talented scholars and outstanding teachers.

            The college will have to choose what sort of institution it wants to be. First, it could move toward being an open-admissions-type institution, thereby aiming to serve disadvantaged and first generation college students. Consider, for example, Buffalo State or Old Westbury. Second, it could shrink the number of employees and students and aim to be a highly competitive liberal arts college similar to Geneseo. Third, it could more sharply focus on its signature arts programs by further transferring resources from business, humanities, and the sciences into the arts (music, studio arts, and theater). The arts programs (for example, music) are expensive per student and, as a result, investing in them has significant opportunity costs. Fourth, it could try to be an all-purpose college that pursues all of these goals and achieves them to varying degrees.

            The problem with the fourth model is that it risks Fredonia not having a brand name. This is a problem for marketing and recruitment. It also results in an unclear roadmap when the college is deciding how to tradeoff increasing the caliber of students against providing opportunity for the disadvantaged students, promoting diversity, and making sure there aren’t layoffs.  

            There is a moral case for the university continuing to allow the caliber of students to fall by focusing on the disadvantaged and diverse students. This might be accompanied surgically cutting out programs that add too little revenue to the university (see tentative plans above) or that are unlikely to serve disadvantaged and weaker students. The argument is that the most capable students are much more likely than other students to graduate, graduate on time, and major in fields that have a good return on investment. If so, these students have the least need for educational subsidies. They can go to better private colleges or, within SUNY, university centers or elite comprehensive colleges. The students who are less likely to graduate, graduate on time, or who tend toward weaker majors (in terms of return on investment or worth of subject matter) are the ones most in need of education-welfare.

One might think that investment in education like any other investment should be private as a way to ensure efficient decisions and that taxpayers don’t get soaked. However, given that this is not going to happen, one can see why a university might want to pursue social-justice-related goals.

14 November 2018

Immigration: The U.S. ceases to be constituted by a people or committed to a particular idea

Stephen Kershnar
Immigration and Who We Are
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
November 13, 2018

            Migrants from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador have formed a caravan to come into the U.S. Their number, perhaps less than ten thousand, is a drop in the bucket given the number of people in the U.S., but it highlights how the U.S. is changing.   

            In 2017 according to the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), immigrants (legal and illegal) are nearly one out of seven (14%) U.S. residents. This is the highest percentage since 1910. CIS reports that the number of immigrants is now a record 45 million.

These figures underestimate the impact of immigration. Current immigrants have had 17 million U.S. children (2017 figure). This means that roughly one out of five U.S. residents are now immigrants or their children (62 million out of 326 million). Also, roughly one out of five babies in the U.S. are now born to immigrants, whether legal or illegal.

According to a recent study by Yale and MIT professors, there are now 22 million illegal aliens in the country. Again, this number underestimates their impact. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that, roughly, 5 million children have been born to illegal aliens and received birthright citizenship.

Consider what a country is. A country is a collection of people connected through certain legal relations. What makes a government morally legitimate is that the people that constitute it consented to it. It is analogous to a country club in that voluntary membership creates the club, distributes its privileges and duties, and controls the use of its property. Without such consent, members would have neither a duty to pay for the club nor would they have to subject themselves to the club’s rules. The content of such consent is set out by the contract that members agreed to when they formed or joined the club.

            The problem is that the U.S. citizens have not authorized this flood of immigrants into their club. First, they did not authorize the sea of illegal aliens. Second, many of the immigrants became naturalized through birthright citizenship that the Constitution does not permit. The Claremont Institute’s Edward Erler convincingly argues that birthright citizenship involves a deliberate misreading of the Constitution. Third, even if the citizens did authorize the past flood of immigrants, and they didn’t, by electing Donald Trump they sent a clear message that they want the flooding to stop. By analogy, if citizens were to elect a President and Congress on the basis of their explicit promise not to send the country to war and then they promptly do so, the people’s will would have been thwarted.  

            Importing so many people with different histories, values, and cultures will significantly change the country. Imagine how members of a rich-and-educated WASP country club in Westchester County, New York would be shocked at what happened to their club if suddenly one out of five of its members were a poor-and-uneducated Central or South American. They might not be able to reverse the change if it were done by a do-gooder executive board who didn’t tell them what it planned to do. Because a club is composed of its members, it would even go out of existence in a metaphysical sense, if not a legal one, were its membership to change fast enough.

            Just as the country club members are within their rights not to want their club drastically changed, Americans are within their rights not to want their country drastically changed. This is true regardless of whether the proposed changes would make the country worse.  

It is worth noting that the way in which the elites want to change this country will make it worse. It is a fact, no matter how impolite, that today’s immigrants are less educated, intelligent, and skilled than the native population. They vote for higher taxes, more government spending and regulation, more affirmative action, and so on.    

To see some of these differences, consider that 27% of working-age immigrants are high school dropouts versus 7% of working-age Americans (2015 CIS number). CIS also reports that more than half of households headed by an immigrant (legal or illegal) used at least one welfare program (Medicaid, cash, food, or housing assistance) versus 30% of native households. National Review’s Jason Richwine argues that the average IQ of immigrants is lower than that of native American whites and that this difference is likely to persist over several generations.

Even if none of this were true, a people have the right to prevent their country from drastic change. A country has a culture to the extent that its people share a history, identity, and set of values. Intuitively, it is morally permissible for Israelis, Japanese, and Norwegians to ensure that their country stays focused on their interests rather than others’ interests. One way that they might do this is by making sure their countries are mostly composed of their peoples. This will ensure that their culture, government, and surroundings remain Jewish, Japanese, or Norwegian. Americans should be able to do the same.

The purpose of the United States is increasingly unclear. If it continues to be flooded by immigrants who differ greatly from native Americans, it will cease to constituted by a specific people. It already wasn’t constituted by a people in the way that Israel, Japan, and Norway are. Every year it is less committed to an idea or coherent set of them. The country’s commitment to freedom or the Constitution is waning with increasing government power. This can be seen whether we look at ever increasing taxes, encroachment on traditional American rights (for example, free speech, gun ownership, and rights against search and seizure), or the number of people under the control of the criminal justice system.

Perhaps the U.S. doesn’t need to be constituted by a particular people or committed to a particular idea or a coherent set of them. Still, it would have been nice if the citizens had been asked.