Be Thoughtful About Giving Thanks

Thanksgiving provides an opportunity to reflect on gratitude.  I’ve written a number of columns over the years about Thanksgiving and the spirit of gratitude.  It is good to be grateful.  But gratitude requires honesty.  And giving thanks should be grounded in truth. 

It is possible, after all, for gratitude to be mistaken.  We can thank the wrong person, for example.  Or we can misunderstand what we are thankful for.  Gratitude misfires, for example, if I thank someone for a gift that they did not give me.  We’ve got to get the facts right, when we express gratitude.  We also need a correct interpretation of those facts.

Nor does it make sense to be thankful for “bad gifts.”  It is not appropriate to give an alcoholic booze for his Christmas.  Nor should a drunk really be thankful for such a present.  Gift-giving and thankfulness imply that the gift is beneficial and represents goodwill.

Moreover, saying thanks does not justify misdeeds.  If someone eats the pumpkin pie on my plate without my consent, saying “thanks” does not make the theft OK.

All of this is especially important at Thanksgiving, when our rituals are infused with misleading myths that conceal terrible misdeeds

The Thanksgiving myth celebrates religious freedom and hospitable relations between European settlers and Native Americans.  These are noble ideas.  Religious liberty ought to be celebrated.  And hospitality is important.  Unfortunately, both ideas are mythological when it comes to the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving. 

The Christian colonizers viewed the natives as heathens.  The colonizers did not respect indigenous religions.  Nor did the Puritan colonists tolerate Christian dissenters: Quakers were persecuted in New England, as were figures such as Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson (see Smithsonian for details). When it comes to religious liberty today, it is the First Amendment we ought to thank—not the Pilgrims. 

The European colonists were not friendly to the natives.  Columbus himself began the process of enslaving the natives on American mines and plantations, while also exporting slaves to Europe. The African slave trade grew as the Native America slaves began to die out from European diseases. 

By the time the Pilgrims landed over 100 years after Columbus, European diseases had already decimated native populations.  The land of the Pilgrim’s pride had originally been cleared by natives who had recently died. 

The Pilgrims were aided in their settlement by Squanto, a native American who had been taken to Europe as a slave.  Squanto returned to his homeland only to find that his tribe was dead from disease.

There is even more to the story.  I recommend Loewen’s “Lies My Teacher Told Me” as a useful source that dispells the myths of the first Thanksgiving and discloses the horrible truths of European colonialism.

Now let’s ask what we should be thankful for today about this history.

Should we be thankful that Native peoples such as Squanto were enslaved—and thus had the linguistic skills that allowed him to help the Pilgrims? 

Should we be thankful for the plague that killed the Indians before the Pilgrims arrived?  In 1629, John Winthrop seemed to thank God for that “miraculous” plague that left the country “void of inhabitants.”  Is it appropriate to thank God for the diseases that depopulated the continent?

These questions remind us that not everyone views Thanksgiving as a time of celebration.  Native American activists have declared this a “day of mourning.”  A plaque commemorating this reads: “Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture.”

Some might conclude that this shows that gratitude is relative.  Not everyone will be grateful for the same thing. 

There is some truth here.  But relativism is a cop out.  Objective facts matter when it comes to gratitude.  The more important problem is that we can be mistaken in our gratitude and misled by our myths.  These mistakes can lead us to give thanks for the wrong things.

And so, as we enter into the holiday season, let’s enjoy giving gifts and giving thanks.  But let’s be careful about the gifts we give.  And let’s be thoughtful about what we are thankful for. 

Rename Schools After Ideas Not People

Fresno Bee , November 14, 2021

As local districts consider renaming schools, I suggest not naming them after people. Human beings are flawed. No one is perfect enough to have his or her name immortalized on a building.

Renaming is already underway in our region. Forkner Elementary in Fresno is being renamed for Roger Tartarian. The school’s original namesake was responsible for racial redlining that excluded Armenians, such as Tartarian. Meanwhile, people in the Central Unified School District are calling for Polk Elementary to be renamed. President James K. Polk was a slave owner who led U.S. expansionism during the Mexican-American war.

If you scratch the surface of many names, you’ll find problems. Herbert Hoover High School is named for a U.S. president who is typically blamed for the Great Depression. He has also been accused of racism. In 1932, W.E.B. Dubois said, “no one in our day has helped disenfranchisement and race hatred more than Herbert Hoover.”

At Stanford University there is an institute named after Hoover. The Stanford name is also controversial. Leland Stanford named the university after his dead son, Leland Stanford Jr. The elder Stanford was the governor of California — and a racist. In his inaugural address in 1862, Stanford said, “the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged, by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.”

There may be some pure souls whose names deserve to be immortalized. But the naming process is often corrupted by wealth and power. It is the rich and powerful who put their names on buildings — or on entire universities. In America, we often confuse wealth and power with virtue.

Given this, it is strange that we continue to name buildings, universities, and even cities after people. Speaking of cities, the capitol of Wisconsin is named for James Madison, the father of the U.S. Constitution. But Madison was also an unrepentant slave owner. In Madison, Wisconsin today, they are trying to rename James Madison Memorial High School. Such are the ironies of American history.

One benevolent purpose in naming places after people is to memorialize role models. Role models are important. We learn through imitation. If you want to learn to play a sport or an instrument, you should imitate what good athletes and musicians do. But no human role model is perfect.

The case of Aaron Rodgers comes to mind. He is widely admired for his skill as quarterback. But his integrity and intelligence have been called into question due to his anti-vax views.

I’m disappointed, but not surprised by Rodger’s failure. Rodgers is good at throwing a football. Why did we expect him to make good decisions about medicine? We don’t expect doctors to be good quarterbacks. We each have our virtues — and our vices.

The same limitations hold true even of past presidents. They are skilled at politics. But it’s naïve to think they are flawless moral exemplars.

Each one of us is a creature of our own time. Past values influence the behavior of past icons. As our values evolve, former heroes fall from grace. This is inevitable. It is natural to reassess past heroes in light of current knowledge.

A further problem is polarization. In our polarized world, there are even disputes about the integrity of icons such as Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We disagree about role models because we disagree about everything. Imagine the partisan outrage that would erupt if a school were to be named after Clinton, Bush, Obama, or Trump.

To avoid all of this, we might name schools after concepts — as I suggested in a previous column. This would be less polarizing. It would avoid the game of “gotcha” through which heroes are toppled.

I previously suggested naming schools after concepts such as “Liberty,” “Independence,” “Imagination,” and “Kindness.” We might also consider “Truth,” “Justice,” “Democracy,” “Fairness,” or “Responsibility.” How about Curiosity Elementary, Integrity Middle School, or Human Rights High School?

Finally, let’s include young people in these conversations. There is power in names and in naming. Students could be inspired and empowered by this opportunity. In doing the research and engaging the process, young folks can learn important lessons about history, democracy, and the power of names.

Artificial Intelligence and Moral Judgment

AI Morality

Fresno Bee, November 7, 2021

Artificial intelligence can do many things, but only humans can build a decent society.

There is a difference between answering a question and having a soul. Computers answer questions in response to queries. They process information. Machines are getting smarter. But they lack the depth of the human soul.

If you’ve used Apple’s Siri or some other smart device, you know how limited these machines can be. They will get better. But their limitations are instructive.

I’ve been experimenting with Delphi, an Artificial Intelligence (AI) machine that mimics ethical judgment. Created by the Allen Institute for AI, Delphi responds to questions about values.

The company’s website explains: “Delphi is an AI system that guesses how an ‘average’ American person might judge the ethicality/social acceptability of a given situation.” The machine gathers information from the Internet to respond to queries.

It is fun — and sometimes funny — to see what the machine comes up with. I tried several queries. One line of questioning had to do with eating.

I asked about eating chicken. Delphi said, “It’s OK.” Delphi said the same thing for cow and pig. But Delphi said it was wrong to eat chimpanzee, bear and snake.

Of course, reality is more complicated than this. Some people eat bears. Others eat snakes. In some cultures, it is wrong to eat cows or pigs. And vegetarians don’t eat any animals.

I asked about eating a dead human body. Delphi said, “It’s wrong.” Delphi also said it was wrong to eat children. Thankfully Delphi answered those questions correctly.

But the machine is limited. I asked about not eating. Delphi said, “It’s bad.” But when I asked about fasting, Delphi said, “It’s good.” This seems to be a contradiction.

One problem is that the system responds with simple answers. It does not ask for further clarification — say, about the reason why someone is not eating. And it does not offer subtle explanations that account for cultural differences or exceptional circumstances.

Human beings understand that the questions of ethics are invitations for deeper conversations. We also know that culture and context matter.

One of the most important features of our humanity is the fact that we have to live with our decisions. Ethical decisions involve social and psychological pressures that machines cannot feel. If you make a bad ethical decision, you will feel guilty. If you do something good, you will feel proud. The machine can’t feel those things.

Consider ethical emotions such as compassion and gratitude. Compassion connects us with others who are suffering. Gratitude is a positive feeling to those who support us. These emotions color our judgments. Computers don’t have emotions.

Human beings also struggle to overcome negative emotions such as anger, resentment, and hate. To be human is to be engaged in a process of taming negative emotion. Computers don’t have that challenge.

I asked Delphi about hating people. It said “It’s wrong.” I asked Delphi about hating evil. It said, “It’s good.” That makes sense. But when I asked about hating enemies, things got interesting. It said, “It’s normal.”

This was a subtle answer. Did the computer know that humans are conflicted about hating our enemies? Jesus told us to love our enemies. But most of us don’t live up to that ideal. It’s normal to hate enemies, even if it is not good.

I continued to ask Delphi about hate. I asked about hating Biden and hating Trump. In both cases, the computer said, “It’s fine.” This shows us another problem. The computer gathered its data from the Internet. Undoubtedly there is a lot of hate direct at both Trump and Biden. So, the computer concluded “It’s fine.”

This reminds us that browsing the Internet is a terrible way to reach conclusions about ethics. The hate we find online is not fine. It’s a sign of social dysfunction.

The machine’s answers reflect the values it discovers in the human world. An AI created in a carnivorous society will be different than one created by vegetarians. An AI in a hate-filled society will reflect that hate. Our smart machines are mirrors. They summarize who we are and what we believe.

It remains a human responsibility to create a decent society. No smart machine can do that for us. Computers answer questions. They cannot cultivate the human soul.

Freedom is Frustrating and Pride Provokes

Fresno Bee, Oct. 31, 2021

Life in a secular democracy can be frustrating. In our country, we disagree about nearly everything. Our lack of agreement is a sign of the health of our democracy. Liberty is disruptive. The confusing complexity of our secular world is worth celebrating.

Consider the controversy about an LGBTQ pride club at Fresno Pacific University. Fresno Pacific is a Christian school. It denied an application for a student pride club. The university president, Joseph Jones, explained that establishing a pride club “was not consistent with the Confession of Faith of the university.”

The Fresno Pacific Confession of Faith says, “God instituted marriage as a lifelong covenant between a man and a woman for the purpose of companionship, encouragement, sexual intimacy and procreation.” Fresno Pacific is affiliated with the Mennonite Brethren Church, a church that is opposed to homosexuality and extramarital sex.

As a religious institution, Fresno Pacific has an exemption from Title IX, the law that is supposed to prohibit sex discrimination. The Department of Education explains that “Title IX does not apply to an educational institution that is controlled by a religious organization to the extent that application of Title IX would be inconsistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

All of this came as a surprise to student journalists who reported about it in the Fresno Pacific school newspaper. An important part of this story is about courageous student journalism. The good news is that the student journalists at Fresno Pacific were free to pursue this story.

Another part of the story is the fact that the national Campus Pride organization lists Fresno Pacific on its website as among “the absolute worst, most unsafe campuses for LGBTQ Youth.” Campus Pride is free to publish its list. Students can complain. And the campus will likely continue its policies.

The First Amendment is the touchstone here. It guarantees religious liberty as well as freedom of speech, freedom of the press— along with the right to assemble and to petition the government. In the United States, religious organizations have a significant degree of freedom. Journalists are free to report on these things. Ordinary citizens are free to cheer or jeer in rallies in the streets. And if you want to change the law, you can speak to your congressional representative.

The Fresno Pacific case is the kind of thing that happens in secular democracies. The story undoubtedly involves anxiety and acrimony for those directly involved. There will be disagreements about what should happen next. But the story reminds us that the First Amendment is alive and well in our country.

The liberties enumerated in the First Amendment give rise to controversies that span the political spectrum. Wherever your sympathies lie, you are bound to be outraged and offended by someone in a world that is organized under the First Amendment.

On the one hand, anti-vax and anti-mask protesters make First Amendment appeals and disrupt school board meetings. Some Trumpians have celebrated the protests of Jan. 6, linking it to the kind of assembly protected by the First Amendment. This shows us an important limit. You can rally and protest. But violence is not protected.

On the other hand, LGBTQ people have a right to speak out against Fresno Pacific. And in our world, religion is strictly regulated in public schools. One interesting recent case involves a high school coach in the state of Washington who was fired for leading his players in prayer. Among the issues in that case is an atheist family who complained that the coach did not provide their son with adequate playing time because he refused to pray.

And so it goes. There will always be plenty of controversies to keep the lawyers busy and the critics buzzing. The political philosopher Robert Nozick famously said, “liberty disrupts patterns.” We might add that liberty also disrupts social harmony and peace of mind.

Some may prefer a world where everyone conforms and obeys. But that’s not America. Thomas Jefferson once said, “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than those attending too small a degree of it.” And if you don’t agree, in our country you are free to say so.

An Atheist at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

I participated in the (October 2021) meeting of the Parliament of the World’s Religions on a panel focused on compassion as a religious and non-religious value. I represented the non-religious point of view in conversation with Dr. Peter Admirand (Dublin City University, and my co-author on Seeking Common Ground), Dr. Veena Howard (a scholar of South Asian religions and my colleague at Fresno State), and Dr. Laura Novak Winer (a rabbi and a professor at Hebrew Union College ).

Earlier that morning, the Dalai Lama had addressed the Parliament. He said, “all religions have something to teach us.” And, “the essence of all religious teaching is compassion.”

Dalai Lama at Parliament of World’s Religions 2021

This important claim asks us to think critically about the long history of religious violence and intolerance. It may be the case that compassion is taught in every religion. But religious people can fail to be compassionate.

The same point is true, of course, for non-religious people. Secular regimes can lack compassion. And atheists can be cold-hearted.

But there is a place for compassion in atheism. Atheists emphasize the fact of human mortality. We all suffer and die. There is no sense in adding to the cruelty of the world. Rather, we should avoid violence and spread good will.

Atheists should acknowledge that human brains and bodies have evolved to include a substantial place for compassion and communal feeling. We are social animals thrown onto a small planet in the middle of the vastness. We should find way to laugh and sing and mourn together (an idea I’ve explored in my book Compassion).

These shared experiences are a focus of religious life. One need not accept the metaphysical pronouncements of religious traditions in order to understand that compassion is good for us and that love and community help us live well.

Unfortunately, the philosophical tradition has often looked askance at compassion. Kantian morality is focused on universal duty detached from emotion. Such an approach may dismiss compassion as a soft, emotional value.

Kant also dismissed the extravagant claims of superstitious religion. In defending his idea of a “pure religion” of reason (in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason), Kant espoused a religion “cleansed of the nonsense of superstition and the madness of enthusiasm.”

Humanistic ethics has evolved to include much more than Kantian universality. We know that compassion is an important part of ethics. And we should understand that people find meaning in religion without simply dismissing it as superstition and nonsense.

This is one reason it is important for atheists, humanists, and philosophers to participate in inter-religious and interfaith dialogue. It is not easy to dismiss another person’s faith when you know them as a real person. Interfaith and inter-religious conversations are promoting solidarity in a world that still includes much religious intolerance. Atheists and humanists need to participate in these conversations because there is often intolerance and misunderstanding across the religious/nonreligious divide.

There are challenges, of course. Atheists sometimes seem to enjoy picking fights with religious believers. Religious people sometimes sling mud in the direction of atheism. I think we should all be more tolerant, hospitable, and compassionate.

This does not mean that we ignore the fundamental disagreements between religious and nonreligious people. But it is possible to be compassionate in our disagreements. Each of us is trying to make sense of life. Some find answers in religion, in all of its complex variety. Others turn away from religion entirely. So long as there is no violence, oppression, and hostility, we can co-exist. And if we take the time to listen to one another, we might find common ground in the shared human struggle to learn, love, and live.

If you are interested in these issues, please join me as I discuss our new book, Seeking Common Ground: A Theist/Atheist Dialogue with Peter Admirand, at a book launch and panel discussion on November 4, 11:30AM Pacific Time. The panel will be in Dublin, Ireland. I’ll join by Zoom. For Zoom details, contact Peter Admirand: peter.admirand@dcu.ie.