Uncommon Sense

May 3, 2021

It Says So Right on the Label

Filed under: History,language,Medicine,Reason,Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:00 am
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I was reading the label of an over the counter (OTC) medicine and right on the front it said “No Artificial Sweeteners” and “Contains 44% Xylitol.” Not being a chemist, you might not be confused here.

Xylitol is produced from xylose, a naturally occurring sugar, by both chemical and biological methods. In the chemical process, catalytic hydrogenation of xylose produces the sugar substitute xylitol. In the biological process, quite a few chemical “pretreatments” are needed before biological action (via bacteria or yeast) creates the desired product.

The distinction here between “artificial sweetener” and “xylitol” is “wafer thin” (“Waffer thin” as pronounced by John Cleese in the Monty Python masterpiece “The Meaning of Life.”)

The difficulty is due only to advertising, which is a form of propaganda (which it was called pre-WW2, then propaganda became a “dirty” word). In advertiser lingo there are “bad” words and “good” words. Only “good” words are to be used with one’s own products and only “bad” words are to be used with other products.

For example, here are some “good” words: natural and all-natural, fresh, wholesome, etc. And here are some “bad” words: artificial, synthetic, chemical, etc.

In the above instance xylitol can be found in nature, but it is hard to harvest, so it is synthesized chemically or biologically. Yep, xylitol (chemical names are not capitalized, btw) is artificial (the xylitol they put in that bottle certainly was anyway).

Now, before you go bonkers on me, do realize that butter is artificial. What? Butter isn’t natural? Nope, butter is not natural, certainly not “all-natural.” You can not go pick a pat or two off of a butter bush out back, you know. The word artificial means made through man’s arts. Many things you think are natural aren’t really. For example, you go out into your backyard and pick an apple off of your tree and take a bite. Hmm, natural goodness, right? It seems so (and I have fond memories of doing just that as a child; I can still recall the taste of those apples). But most often it is not. Most fruit trees have been artificially selected to produce “non-natural” fruit, hybrids. Almost all of the plants we eat were never part of nature. We created them though artifice. Artichokes were thistles, corn was this spindly little plant with inedible seeds, sugar beets were tiny little things, not the football-sized things we grow today, and all bananas and grapes had seeds. The change process is called artificial selection to distinguish our efforts from nature’s.

Take the case of aspirin. Aspirin, by far, is the most successful drug ever devised. It’s century plus history began from the recognition that a tea made from willow bark had analgesic properties (the Egyptians knew this). But the tea was bitter as hell and if you used a bit too much it gave you a very upset stomach. Much later, it was discovered that the active ingredient in the willow bark tea was salicylic acid. An effort was made to find a chemical variant of salicylic acid that was still potent by which didn’t have those side effects. Since salicylic acid is a carboxylic acid, one attempt was to turn it into an ester, a much less irritating class of compounds. Aspirin is the ester formed from salicylic acid and acetic acid, the active ingredient in vinegar, and a star was born. Aspirin is artificial and I am happy about that.

Just being “natural” is not a sign of “good” or “safe.” Rattlesnake venom, arsenic, and monkey dung are all natural but I don’t want any of them in my body. In foods and pharmaceuticals, if a natural substance shows some promise, it is studied to see if modifications could make it better. In the case of pharmaceuticals, if they are strictly chemical we look to see if we can synthesize it as a lower cost/higher volume process of creating it. Instead of extracting rare colored dyes from clams, we can synthesize what we want and have more variety and permanence. This is what we do.

Problems arise when what we synthesize isn’t recognized by the biological process responsible for the breakdown and recycling of our wastes (they are not natural you see). We are currently experiencing these problems with oceanic plastic waste and microfiber residues in all natural waters.

A Side Note Question—What kills more fish: chemical pollutants or plastic waste? The answer is: commercial fishing. We kill via this method orders of magnitude more fish than all of the sources of pollution put together. I mention this because we have blind spots and advertisers take advantage of them.

May 2, 2021

The Hard Problems of Vegetarianism

Filed under: Culture,Reason — Steve Ruis @ 8:19 am

As you probably know I am one who thinks we do not ask enough questions and as a consequence we do not think through our real issues, instead we short-circuit the problem, take a stand prematurely and then get into offence-defense scenarios with regard to that stance, rather than the issue itself.

I recommend this post to you because of the questions it raises and that it may affect your thinking on a hard problem.

The Hard Problems of Vegetarianism

April 26, 2021

The Flaws of Capitalism

Filed under: Business,Economics,Morality,Politics,Reason,The Law — Steve Ruis @ 11:09 am
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The major flaw of capitalism, that it has no limit of even a brake on greed, I have pointed out before, but there are others. Here are a few.

It is claimed that capitalism provides the most efficient distribution of resources. That may or may not be true, but capitalism sure doesn’t do diddly-squat for the distribution of production wastes. There are a spare few examples in which capitalism did have an effect upon waste. A steel company was drawing some heat from the amount of waste they were producing. This waste stemmed from the “pickling acid” (actually hydrochloric acid) used to reduce corrosion of newly poured iron ingots. The acid “passivated” the iron but it also dissolved a bit of the iron and so “wore out” its ability to perform that task. They were dumping that liquid waste, some legally, other not so much and were drawing heat from the federal government (too much regulation, my ass). A consultant told them that their “spent” pickling acid contained a great deal of iron(III) chloride which could be sold on the market and much of the unused acid could be recycled. The sale of the iron(III) chloride and reuse of the acid reclaimed paid for the processing and, in fact, made a profit. Ta da! A capitalism success story. Unfortunately such stories are rare. Dumping of waste is the lazy and cost effective way to deal with it and has been for a very long time.

A capitalism horror story involved a battery recycling plant near Oakland, CA. This plant took car batteries, broke them down, and recycled the lead in them to make new car batteries. Sounds cool, no? Well, part of the process involved emptying the old batters of the fluid in them which was heavily acidic (sulphuric acid, stronger even than hydrochloric acid) and had a great deal of dissolved lead in it as well. So, how did they dispose of this nasty liquid? They poured out on a bare patch of ground out back behind their buildings . . . for decades. Evidence of this waste process was discovered many tens of miles (hundreds even) away as the ground water system spread it out to cover a large part of central California. We do not possess the resources or the techniques to clean this up. The company? Oh, they declared bankruptcy to avoid any liability on the part of those who did the deed.

Basically, capitalism abuses “the commons,” that is those things we hold in common: the air, our waterways, the ground and all of the systems operating therein. Capitalists pollute it, we clean it up. (We are still spending tax money to clean up Superfund sites from decades ago.)

Capitalism does a lousy job of distributing wages. As a prime example, CEOs in the 1950’s made 20-30 times what their average worker made. Today, more than a few CEO’s make 300-400X what their average worker makes. Wow, did CEOs increase productivity, knowledge, customer satisfaction, anything that much? Nope. If one could track CEO productivity (and that would be hard to do), I am sure that CEO salaries have rocketed ahead of any productivity measurement you could some up with. How is this so? It is so because the CEOs packed their own boards of trustees with friendly faces and when the issue of “CEO salary” came up they vote for “raise” every damned time. Some of these CEOs return the favor by serving on their friend’s boards so they could get unwarranted raises, too. Unwarranted salaries paid out to CEOs doesn’t end up in shareholder’s pockets, so how could this happen? Capitalism basically doesn’t care.

In this country we have come to view capitalism as a thing in itself, rather than a tool we wield. We think “it” does this and “it” does that when it is we who do everything. It is very, very (very) clear that unregulated capitalism is disastrous. So, why does one of our two major political parties campaign all of the time on a “less regulation” is better and “no regulation” is best platform? Shouldn’t we be searching for the best regulation and if not that, better regulation? Why would capitalists campaign against the thing that makes capitalism viable? Oh, it’s the greed thing again. Even rabid anti-socialist politicians will vote for corporate socialism almost every time and the reason they do? They are being paid generously, by capitalists, to do so. Apparently politics doesn’t limit greed either.

April 6, 2021

Another Look at Dennis Prager’s Biblical Values

I am still pondering Dennis Prager’s take on Judeo-Christian values in his column entitled “The American Civil War Is Over Judeo-Christian Values.”

The next thing to strike me are these two: 3. Just as morality derives from God, so do rights. All men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” declares the Declaration of Independence. 4. The human being is uniquely precious.

This idea that their god has given each of us gifts: physical gifts, mental gifts, and now human rights is laughable. This is a bald-faced power play. By claiming I have given you gifts (You can’t prove I didn’t!) then I create in you a sense of reciprocity, implying you should give something back. (They accept cash and credit cards.) If their god has given us all of our abilities, then why are we so broken? Why are we sinful abominations who can only be saved by investing in Jesus Stock. (Really, would you invest in a stock that only paid dividends when you died? Really, would you?)

And Old Yahweh taught that our role is as his slaves and we have no rights as slaves; we have obligations, especially an obligation of obedience to Yahweh and his priests, but rights? No.

And when is a secular document like the Declaration of Independence used by Christian apologists to make their arguments? Has the Declaration of Independence been made Christian scripture?

And “uniquely precious”? Is that why all Christians are against the death penalty? Oh, they aren’t you say? Most are for it? I don’t understand. They think it is fine that we destroy god’s creation and scatter all of his magnanimous gifts before they can be fully employed. Surely such people should be proselytized, not euthanatized.

And if we are all “uniquely precious” we should be making titanic efforts to feed those thousands of children who die from starvation every damned day, right? Am I right?

How is it that people like Dennis Prager can spout such nonsense with no recognition of the apparent contradictions with actual behavior of Christians. Even the Bible tells us to look at what others do and not just what they say.

April 5, 2021

Who Wants to Think? Really!

I have been reading a revealing and fascinating book of late (They Thought They Were Free, The Germans 1933-45 by Milton Mayer). The author interviewed ten ordinary Germans right after WW2 and came to think of them as friends. Many of the conclusions I had come to about the nature of the German people have been severely corrected. And, I have spent more than a little time reading about and viewing works on WW2, particularly about the Germans (I am also reading a new bio of Hitler).

Consider the following quote from a colleague of the author who was a German college professor.

“The dictatorship, and the whole process of its coming into being, was above all diverting. It provided an excuse not to think for people who did not want to think anyway. I do not speak of your ‘little men,’ your baker and so on; I speak of my colleagues and myself, learned men, mind you. Most of us did not want to think about fundamental things and never had. There is no need to. Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about—we were decent people—and kept us so busy with continuous changes and ‘crises’ and so fascinated, yes, fascinated by the machinations of ‘national enemies,’ without and within that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose, we were grateful. Who wants to think?”

Who wants to think?

This was an intellectual speaking, right after WW2, so things were fresh in mind.

Who wants to think, indeed?

I was immediately reminded of Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (published in 1964, so also not long after the war). In that book, Hofstadter points out that there has been a large streak of anti-intellectualism in American culture from the beginning. (You may observe it in action right now: anti-vax, flat earth, chem trails, climate change is a hoax, etc. All of these are anti-expert and anti-intellectual efforts which find fertile soil to grow in our culture.)

Thinkers, bah, what do they know?

Of course, what I want to write about is . . . what the heck are they talking about? What is “thinking?”

At present we have no idea where conscious thoughts come from, and even less about subconscious mental processes. So, a conscious thought pops into your mind, what do you do? In most people, with most thoughts, we just ignore them and they go away. We need do nothing to make this happen. We don’t have to “shoo” away these thoughts (although I teach my archery students to do just that as there is no time to think non-helpful thoughts while trying to perform at archery). If a thought is important and ignored, it may come back. I tend to think that this is because whatever stimulated that thought in the first place (The house is on fire!) still exists and continues to stimulate that thought. Most thoughts just “go away” and they do not “come back.” And, since we don’t know where they come from, we certainly don’t know where they go to.

So, what distinguishes thinkers from those who do not want to think? Multiple things, I suspect, primarily thinkers are way more likely to grab that thought and examine it, which reinforces its existence, by injecting it into memory, first short-term memory and even long term memory (later). We consider that thought, as I am doing with “Who wants to think?” For intellectuals this is pleasant experience, or failing being that, at least stimulates one’s curiosity. I think it is in this “one thing leads to another” making of connections that much of this pleasure arises. By fitting a new thought in amongst the storehouses of ones memories, one is making that new thought part of what one “knows.” One is learning.

“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.” Albert Einstein

Of course, we are not all alike. I remember a conversation I had while I was in grad school. It was over our backyard fence with a neighbor. She asked what I did and I said I was a student at the nearby college. (One doesn’t volunteer one is a chemist casually. Most people’s eyes glaze over then any conversation begun ends.) She responded with “Oh, you must have read a lot of books.” And I said, just “yes,” not the “thousands upon thousands” that was the truth of the matter (I was an avid reader from age 5.). She looked at me, smiled, and said “I read a book once.”

This natural ability to “let thoughts go” is the core of meditative practices. If you stop accepting thoughts, they come less and less frequently and finally, you get the dial tone of your mind. (I used to think of it as the empty TV screen static but that no longer exists for most people, so that metaphor is now dead/dying.)

Remember this?

If you have a mind like mine, you recover “normal programming” when a meditation is over rather quickly.

So, what do you think? (Do you see how cleverly I worked up to this question; neat, huh?)

PS I had an afterthought! It is clear to me that people who like to think, often have specialties: hobbies, topics, academic disciplines, etc. in which they exert their thinking and then other parts of their lives in which they think as little as possible. So, thinkers are rarely generalists. They choose what it is they will think deeply about, possibly creating a refuge from others. (Intellectuals often have poor social skills and retreat into mental pursuits as a way of escaping the bewildering nature of interpersonal relations. This is why scientists are often considered to be geeks . . . because they are.)

April 4, 2021

Not Quite Done with Prager’s Objective Morality Claim

In the third post in this series I address Dennis Prager’s #1 on his list of Judeo-Christian values: #1 Objective moral standards come from God. In this post, I continue on that topic.

I argued in the prior post that the concept of “objective moral values” was invented as a prop to help define out a god. Otherwise it has no meaning.

In my view, all moral standards and values are subjective. This drives people like Mr. Prager bonkers. Let me explain.

We have collectively come to the conclusion, around the entire globe, that murder is unacceptable. Every culture around the world has a precept or law that says that “thou shalt not murder” and if you do, we will find your ass and if convicted, we will stake it out on an anthill, string it up in a tree, or burn it to a crisp in an electric chair, etc.

So, why is this universal? There are two social tools that all members of a social species need to some extent: empathy and sympathy: empathy being “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another” and sympathy being “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune or possessing a common feeling with others.” Any one possessing neither is a sociopath, e.g. Donald J. Trump, and considered “not normal.” (Actually I knew someone who lacked empathy entirely and learned to fake it to get along, so whether real of fake, getting along requires this.) In this manner members of social species are connect emotionally. If someone is murdered, the outrage, pain, sense of loss, rage, etc. are felt, probably to a lesser degree but felt, by everyone on the community. It is not just about how we are hard-wired (by God or evolution) but that we also share such emotions.

Now there are some organizations who have a different “thou shalt not murder” rule, e.g. Murder, Inc., the Mafia, etc. There are rules like, “you don’t hit no one without a sanction from the Capo.” Capisce? In essence, murder is okay when directed by someone high above. This is not at all far from what the Biblical Hebrews experienced. When “hits” were sanctioned, they murdered men, women, children, the aged, goats, you name it. It was sanctioned so, murder away!

And what is objective about a value based upon the subjective god of worship. In the OT is was a god who was, according to Richard Dawkins: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. But if you appeal to Jesus, you are appealing to the gentle God of Love. (And, oh, by the way, Yahweh and Jesus are the same guy, don’t you know.)

Objective my ass.

By having a subjective moral code, it is capable of being upgraded. At one time in this country, human slavery of the most abominable sort was legal and morally acceptable to many, many people. We decided that was not right and made slavery illegal and morally unacceptable. That, I think, is an improvement.

But an “objective,” god-ordained morality is not capable of revision. The Bible says that slavery is fine by God, so it should still be acceptable and legal now, no? So says Dennis Prager . . . no?

I am done for now. Whether I am done . . . done remains to be seen.

Continuing on Dennis Prager’s Judeo-Christian Values Definitions

In this third post, I will address Prager’s first “Judeo-Christian value” #1 Objective moral standards come from God.

Basically, the entire concept of “objective moral standards” comes from people propping up their god concept. If there were no “gods” then there could be no objective moral standards, so if I can convince you that there are “objective moral standards,” I am convincing you that there is a god or there are gods.

This is usually done by offering, as an example, a moral precept everyone subscribes to, like “thou shalt not commit murder.” Everyone taking this into consideration seems to think: “Well, duh, of course . . . who wants to be murdered, so I want the other guy to know about this rule. And since everyone subscribes to this “rule” it must be god-given.” But that doesn’t establish a god source for such an admonition, just that it is a universal feeling amongst human beings to not want to be murdered.

One could challenge this “objective moral precept” by asking “If this was a universal rule, why didn’t Yahweh give this to everyone?” He only gave it to Hebrews . . . to be applied to other Hebrews. Yahweh made it very clear he had separate sets of standards for Yahweh worshippers and everyone else (marriage rules, slavery rules, etc.). So, “thou shalt not commit murder” translates as “though shalt not murder other Yahweh worshippers.” What about the Indians? What about the Chinese? What about the Native Americans? Why were they not taught this “objective moral precept”? This alone, condemned many, many people to Hell out of ignorance of “God’s laws.”

And how is it that Yahweh’s objective moral standards begin with . . .
1. I am the Lord thy God
2. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
3. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
4. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord that God in vain.
5. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.

How is it that these five are listed first and by listing them first implying that they are more important than things like “6. Thou shalt not murder?”

These are also as clear as mud. The whole “graven images” thing was about the common practice of making an idol for placement in a household shrine for worship purposes. So, this was Yahweh (supposedly) forbidding images of itself being so treated and, in so doing, forbidden the worship of other gods or at least worshiping little images of those gods in people’s homes. (This is a theological warfare tactic: out of sight—out of mind.) Number 2 is also odd in that it just requires Yahweh to be at the top of the list of gods, it doesn’t eliminate all of the others. Maybe Yahweh is in first place by a fraction of a percentage point, with Ba’al in second place. That would be okay with regard to Commandment #2. And as long as no image is made of Ba’al (typically represented as a bull) you could still worship Ba’al as your #2 god.

If these are “objective moral standards” (and some argue the “10” are the foundation for the entire list of 613 Commandments) they seem oddly structured. As many have pointed out, shouldn’t “Don’t rape women and children” be on that list? How about “Don’t enslave your fellow many, who was made in my image” or “Be honest in all of your business dealings?” That would solve a lot of problems we face currently (and probably put the Republicans out of business). Even “Wash your hands before eating” would serve better than “don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” don’t you think? Or if that is too far, how about “Do not lie to, or cheat, or steal from your fellow man?” That would cover the Lord’s name business and a whole lot more.

Clearly these are not “objective” moral standards at all. These are one religion’s moral standards, which do not apply to Hindus, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists, Shintoists, animist religionists, shamanistic religionists, Druids, etc.

More on Judeo-Christian Values a la Dennis Prager

I am unpacking the statement regarding Judeo-Christian values made by Dennis Prager in his post entitled “The American Civil War Is Over Judeo-Christian Values.” I am not proceeding methodically, just going along with what happens to resonate at the moment (see previous post).

In this case it is “6. Human beings are not basically good. and 7. Precisely because we are not basically good, we must not trust our hearts to lead us to proper behavior.” This general denigration of our physical existence has led to all kinds of misery. Most recently a mass shooter killed a large number of Asian-American massage parlor workers because he was convinced ordinary sexual feelings made him a “sex addict” and that was preventing him for getting into Heaven (or some other nonsense).

Can you imagine what the world would be like if instead they took the approach that our bodies were a gift from God and we must steward them to provide a platform for our own holiness. We must eat right, exercise, and honor our feelings. If our feelings seem to run counter to what people say is acceptable, we should seek counseling from those in our community who are wise about this topic.

The funny thing is the Bible tells us that “8. All human beings are created in God’s image.” Why the heck would a god create us to look like him and be like him but with untrustworthy instincts and being basically “bad” to the core? Plus at the end of the day of creation that God created “man” He, Himself, declared that it was “very good:” (“And God saw every thing that He had made, and, behold, it was very good.”). How do you get from “very good” to “basically not good” without criticizing the creation as having been flawed?

I detect people making shit up, don’t you?

Next time I will address #1 Objective moral standards come from God.

Now We Know . . . Thanks to Dennis Prager

There has been much discussion over the years about “Judeo-Christian values” but often this term is just a wishy-washy substitute for whatever one wanted to state as their beliefs. Dennis Prager, of Prager University (PragerU) infamy, has taken this out of the murky and into the clear in a column entitled “The American Civil War Is Over Judeo-Christian Values.”

His context is “the current civil war in the United States and the rest of the West is essentially a battle between those values and the left, which rejects Judeo-Christian values.” Ooh, I wonder who gets the grey uniforms and who gets the blue?

At a minimum, Prager does define “Judeo-Christian values,” which is a step forward. I will quote him so as to not misrepresent him.

“Judeo-Christian values are essentially another term for biblical values.”

And here they are:

“1. Objective moral standards come from God.
2. God judges our behavior, and we are therefore accountable to God for our behavior. Outside of a religious worldview, there is no higher being to whom we are morally accountable.
3. Just as morality derives from God, so do rights. All men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” declares the Declaration of Independence.
4. The human being is uniquely precious.
5. The world is based on a divine order, meaning divinely ordained distinctions. Among these divine distinctions are: God and man, man and woman, human and animal, good and evil, and nature and God.
6. Human beings are not basically good.
7. Precisely because we are not basically good, we must not trust our hearts to lead us to proper behavior.
8. All human beings are created in God’s image. Therefore, race is of no significance. We all emanate from Adam and Eve, whose race is never mentioned. That many religious people held racist views only testifies to the almost infinite ability of people to distort what is good.
9. Fear God, not man. Fear of God is a foundation of morality.
10. Human beings have free will. In the secular world, there is no free will because all human behavior is attributed to genes and environment. Only a religious worldview, which posits the existence of a divine soul – something independent of genes and environment – allows for free will.
11. Liberty. America was founded on the belief that God wants us to be free.”
“When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”

(Source: From the Right column dated 3-30-2021)

* * *

It will take several posts to unpack this, so I will just start by noting that #11 is beyond the pale. “God wants us to be free?” WTF? Fear this god, worship this god, or you will burn in Hell; insists on being called “Lord”—interesting idea of what “being free” is. Elsewhere Prager claims the these values are based upon the Old Testament but the OT is about one thing and one thing only: obedience or rather disobedience. It is even stated that the Hebrews were “stiff necked” a technique used by oxen to refuse the yoke. And the phrase “refuse the yoke,” Yahweh’s yoke, I believe is applied to the Hebrews. This hardly reeks “freedom,” now, does it?

Prager, like many an apologist, picks and chooses where to apply “Old Testament values.” Many of these people also talk about the “New Covenant” of God with all peoples, replacing the “Old Covenant” of God and the Hebrew Yahweh fearers. According to Prager, this wasn’t a replacement covenant, this was a revision, with some new chapters added to the old. Others claim that the OT is “null and void.” Which it is, Christians don’t say, but if it is the second, then they should stop quoting the OT.

And, the “new American Civil War” . . . no hyperbole there <sigh>. At least he doesn’t refer to the “War on Christianity.” According to Mr. Prager’s thinking, the original American Civil War was also fought over Judeo-Christian principles. The South wanted to maintain the Biblically-endorsed institution of slavery and the North, here apparently representing the “Left,” wanted less not more slavery. Why Mr. Prager is not talking about that war puzzles me.

There will be more coming.

March 31, 2021

The Role of Tradition in Culture

Back when I was in college I got my hands on a set of “The Story of Civilization,” then about ten volumes I think, and read them. I then found and read “The Lessons of History” from the same duo. These are brilliant expositions on the “big picture” of human history and, I am sure, full of mistakes and flaws as are all works of history, but glorious nonetheless.

I ran across a quote or summary of a point made in The Lessons of History; here it is:

“It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much, to think that your supposedly brilliant mind could develop a better solution in 30 or 40 years than humankind has developed over thousands of years of working together. For this reason, it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.” (Will and Ariel Durant)

It “seems” arrogant? Hmm. It might if there were tradition minders woven into the scheme of our culture, but traditions happen willy-nilly, especially religiously. (Yes, I am aware of massive convocations held to determine what dogmas and traditions will be in this or that church, but most of these meetings are stage shows for the spectators rather than real working sessions. Most of the decisions of such councils were already made before they convened.)

I often refer to traditions as “the ways we have always done things,” not as a disparagement but as a reminder that traditions are cultural memories. So, that crafts and arts and knowledge not get lost over time, they are made into “traditions,” that is something important to remember. A son learning a traditional craft from his father might be cheeky enough to ask “why” during a training session but was liable to receive a slap for his challenge. A good father reinforced the importance of this knowledge/skill being transmitted and made it “special” in the mind of the son.

So, traditional knowledge was passed from father to son, mother to daughter and from uncles and aunts, too. This was knowledge too important to be left to chance: what plants are poisonous to eat, the hunting grounds for certain animals and the techniques used to hunt them, the techniques used to knap rocks into tools, etc.

Now, these “learnings” were hard to come by and dangerous if lost, but as the pace of change has accelerated, are lost at an ever increasing rate. Why? Because the traditional knowledge became irrelevant. For example, when tools made of metal became commonplace, being able to make cruder versions out of stone became less valuable. The convenience of email and texting has made letter writing a less important skill.

Tradition yields to change over time and that is normal. So, in the phrase “It seems arrogant to doubt tradition too much” the key words are “too much.” So what constitutes “too much?” Discarding useful things has consequences, but sometimes it spurs rediscovery or even invention that betters the whole situation. I suggest that possibly what is being said is that tradition is not something to discard casually.

And that brings me to “it’s quite possible that we discount how useful and powerful religion can be.” I wish they would have said “religion is” because there is a large gap between “can be” and “is.” In any case, religion is the embodiment of tradition. Although these traditions seem to be far much less pragmatic than flintknapping, or basket weaving, or growing the Three Sisters. (Which is why religions horned in on other, more useful, traditions (Blessing the crops, blessing the harvest. marking the changes of season).The Durants (both dead now) were on the whole religious positivists, that is, all in all, religion has been a positive force in human society. I, on the other hand, see religion as a control mechanism to coerce the labor of the masses to serve the interests of the elites, both religious and secular.

In the context of religious tradition, therefore, do we ask: “Has this or that religion become a tradition passed over? Is it time to discard it?” This question is being acted out in American culture right now. The rise of the “Nones,” people who participate in no religion has been accelerating and now the Nones outnumber the most popular religious sect in the U.S. (We’re No. 1!; we’re No. 1!) What few people know is that a majority of the Nones still harbor some sort of belief in a “higher power.” They have not thrown off the shackles of supernatural nonsense, they have just thrown off the shackles of “houses of worship.”

I am one who thinks that superstitious nonsense is not at all helpful as it is all make believe. The comfort religion supplies is based upon being familiar, for example. To get to the place where we can discard the tradition of believing superstitious nonsense, we have to discard religion, a reinforcer of superstition nonsense first, so I guess progress is being made . . . cautiously, as the Durants would advocate. Instead of Shakespeare’s “First, kill all of the lawyers,” we are at the “First, defund all of the priests” stage.

Progress marches on!

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