Covid Karma: The Mask Debate Evolves

Fresno Bee, July 25, 2021

Masks are back, along with protests against them. Fresno County public health officials recommend that everyone wear masks again in public. This includes kids in schools, which prompted parents in Clovis to protest the need for kids to wear masks.

The resurgence of COVID is the vexing result of vaccine skepticism. Experts have explained that this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. This is frustrating for vaccinated people. We hoped the vaccine would get us back to normal. But that only works if everyone gets vaccinated.

Unvaccinated people are still supposed to wear masks. But anti-vaxxers are also likely to be anti-maskers. Unvaccinated and unmasked people are at risk. And it is through them that the virus spreads and mutates.

Political polarization is part of the problem. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that Republicans are less likely to get vaccinated than Democrats. But not every vaccine-skeptic is Republican. And some Republicans believe in vaccines and masks. Ignorance, fear, and selfishness are non-partisan problems.

Vaccine skepticism is more complicated than political ideology. Some religious people refuse vaccines on dogmatic grounds. Some people are allergic or have other health conditions that rule out vaccination. And vaccinations for children remain problematic.

This subtlety is ignored when people start casting blame upon the unmasked and unvaccinated. Some go so far as to invoke a kind of karmic comeuppance for the unvaccinated. I have heard more than one person say something like, “Well, it’s those unvaccinated folks own fault. They deserve what they get. I hope they hurry up and die so we can get back to normal.”

The people who say this usually say it with a wink and a whisper. They take it back quickly, claiming it is a joke or that they don’t really mean it. But it’s an awful thing to say.

This cringe-worthy blame game is a symptom of a profound social malfunction. The anti-vaxxers don’t trust the public health system. The pro-vaxxers don’t have any sympathy for the anti-vaxxers. As the pandemic continues, anger and exasperation are more common than kindness and compassion.

This dysfunction is similar to other rips in our unraveling social fabric.

Productive social life requires thick webs of cooperation. In a well-functioning society, cooperation is contagious. Successful cooperation makes people more cooperative. Cooperators are rewarded. As we share the goods of social life, we become even more cooperative.

But when cooperation breaks down, there is a vicious cycle fueled by distrust and animosity. This has been described by psychologists and philosophers in terms of “the prisoner’s dilemma” and “the tragedy of the commons.” The basic problem is that when we fail to cooperate, we end up with worse outcomes.

This helps explain a number of political and moral problems. Consider climate change. If other people are consuming mass quantities of fossil fuels, why should I cut back? As the climate heats up and the other guy is guzzling gas, I may lose the motivation to regulate my own consumption.

Or consider the controversy about the integrity of the 2020 election. If the other party is stealing elections or undermining confidence in democratic elections, then why should I cooperate? When trust erodes, democracy collapses.

Similar worries hold for COVID restrictions. Those who cooperated for the past year did so with the expectation that if everyone cooperated, things would get better. But the non-cooperators have undermined that hope.

This is a dangerous moment. We risk losing the buy-in of the folks who cooperated in the first place. Their virtuous behavior has not been rewarded. So, the motivation to cooperate fades.

One solution to this problem is moral. If the minor inconvenience of covering my mouth in public can save people’s lives, then I should mask up. Blame and karma ought to play no part in this moral calculation.

But moral concern is not the only thing that motivates us. Our emotions are also involved. That’s why we also need inspiration and hope. More people need to be inspired to get vaccinated. Those who wear masks need to be praised for their virtue. And those who are vaccinated need to be reassured that their cooperation was not in vain

Reason, Prayer, and Secularism

Fresno Bee, May 2, 2021

Prayer and reason will each enjoy the spotlight this week. The National Day of Prayer unfolds on May 6. The National Day of Reason follows on May 7.

The National Day of Prayer began in the 1950s when Christianity was taken for granted as the American religion. The idea evolved to be more inclusive. In the 1980s Ronald Reagan said in a Day of Prayer proclamation, “Our land today is more diverse than ever, our citizens come from nearly every nation on Earth, and the variety of religious traditions that have found welcome here has never been greater.”

This growing diversity includes nonreligious people. Nonreligion is quickly spreading. According to a 2019 poll, 65% of Americans are Christian, while 26% of Americans are not religious. Other religions (Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus) make up the rest. A more recent Gallup poll reported that fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion.

As nonreligion grows, humanists have become more assertive. The National Day of Reason is a response to reactionary religiosity. A congressional resolution supporting the idea maintains that reason is essential for cultivating democracy, justice and peace. It condemns “irrationality, magical and conspiratorial thinking, and disbelief in science.”

The conflict with science is important. Vaccine skepticism is common among some Christian faiths. Atheists are much more likely than evangelical Christians to get COVID-19 vaccinations.

Other forms of polarization trace the religion/nonreligion divide. Republicans are more religious than Democrats. Midwestern and Southern states are more religious than coastal states. Younger people are less religious than older people. More educated people also tend to be less religious.

Faith and reason can co-exist. But the modern scientific world view creates significant challenges for traditional religious belief.

Science teaches that our sun is one star among billions and that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old. Darwinian biology explains how life evolved, including dinosaurs. Medical science is a powerful tool for saving lives. Neuroscience provides a non-spiritual explanation of consciousness. And so on.

Religious texts and dogmas are disconnected from the growing body of knowledge we call science. Religion is, of course, more than an explanatory system. It is also about community and shared meaning. But increased diversity makes this more complicated. Which tradition should we choose? As nonreligion grows, it becomes easier to pick “none of the above.”

As more people choose this option, social conflict will follow. To manage these conflicts, we need a robust secular system of government such as is provided by the First Amendment. Secularism allows diversity to flourish. In the bad old days, atheists and heretics were burned. Today they are coming out of the closet.

This is probably not what the Founders imagined. American secularism was originally about Christian liberty. Early Americans were concerned with the repression of Christian dissent in the Old World. Americans also engaged in religious persecution. Mormons were driven out. Indigenous people were killed and converted.

As American secularism grew more inclusive, it reflected the best values of this country. We value nonconformity, innovation, and imagination. Reason and science are also deeply American.

Creative freedom is a powerful force. But liberty means different things to different people. The National Day of Reason proclamation quotes James Madison as saying that knowledge is the best guardian of liberty. The National Day of Prayer website quotes the apostle Paul in saying that liberty is grounded in God.

Is liberty a gift of the Creator, or is it the product of social and political evolution? We’ll continue to disagree about the metaphysics of freedom. But despite our differences, religious and nonreligious people share an interest in secularism. It is freedom of thought and religion that allows us to argue and think about those disagreements.

The one thing we might all agree on is the idea that the state should stay out of these arguments. It would be wrong for the state to impose either religion or nonreligion. Individuals also ought to learn to leave each other alone to think for ourselves.

This creates challenges, as with vaccine skepticism. But those challenges are worth it. In a free country, prayer and reason should each have their day in the sun.

Atheism and Diversity: How Big is the Non-Religious Rainbow?

The growth of non-religion will create a significant source of polarization.  Many Americans are leaving religion behind (as I discussed previously). This will exacerbate social conflict, as we sort ourselves into religious and non-religious camps.  

Consider, for example, polling data that shows that atheists are more likely to get a Covid-19 vaccine than evangelical Christians.  90% of atheists say they will get vaccinated, while only 54% of white evangelicals will do so.

This makes sense: atheists tend to trust science and medicine, while evangelicals do not. A similar result has been found with regard to climate change: atheists tend to be more engaged and alarmed about climate change than Christians who read the Bible literally.

But let’s be careful about overgeneralizing.  Atheism can be as fragmented as the rest of society. Religion also contains a multitude. 

And yet, the tendency to oversimplify is common. Theists sometimes simplistically dismiss atheism as the work of the devil.  Atheists also dismiss theism in simplistic terms.  But when it comes to religion and non-religion, complexity is the rule.  Oversimplification obscures much that is important and interesting. It also prevents us from finding common ground.

Consider a recent skirmish among atheists.  Richard Dawkins, a prominent atheist, posted a tweet appearing to disparage transgender people.  Some atheists were appalled.  The American Humanist Association publicly disavowed Dawkins and retroactively withdrew a “Humanist of the Year” award they gave him in 1996.  Other prominent atheists leapt to Dawkins’ defense including Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Steven Pinker.  This provoked further backlash among atheists, with some accusing contemporary atheism of being a bastion of white male privilege. 

This reminds us that atheism is not a monolith.  Like everyone else, atheists have intersectional identities.  Atheists can be Black or white, straight or gay, trans or cis, rich or poor.  The same is true, of course, for religious people.  Some religions embrace LGBTQ people.  Others do not.  Some religions embrace science, medicine, and Covid-19 vaccines.  Others do not.

Generalizations about religion and non-religion are only vague approximations.  Consider, for example, how atheism is colored by the religion that it rejects.  It makes sense to ask whether a nonbeliever is a Christian atheist, a Muslim atheist, a Sikh atheist, a Jewish atheist, and so on.  Some atheists want to avoid this complexity and state that they do not believe in any God or gods at all.  But the binary logic of God or no God oversimplifies. It also helps to know which God and which tradition.

One could reject Christian or Muslim dogma, for example, while remaining culturally attached to Christianity or Islam.  A culturally Christian atheist could enjoy the hymns and rituals of Christian holidays while also turning to the Bible for spiritual insight.  Or an atheist with Muslim roots could fast during Ramadan.  Things become even more complicated when religious identity is connected to ethnic identity—as in Judaism or in the diverse indigenous religions of the world.

Scholars have also pointed out that self-identification as an atheist depends on social privilege.  Member of racial and ethnic minorities are less likely to publicly identify as atheist.  This is not simply a matter of what people believe.  It is also connected to the social need to be more (or less) closely identify with a religious tradition. White men may find it easier to affirm atheism than Black women or members of native American tribes. 

These issues are intriguing and they will likely become more complicated and intense as non-religion grows.  As more people leave religion behind, the diversity of the non-religious will grow. 

Celebrating diversity among nonbelievers may in turn lead more people to leave religion behind, especially those who self-identify in nontraditional ways.  One worry about this possibility, however, is that it may leave religious congregations more homogeneous than they already are, further increasing polarization. 

Perhaps there will be some convergence among the non-religious.  The fact that 90% of atheists plan to get vaccinated points in that direction.  But despite convergence around science, increasing diversity will pose a challenge for the broad community of non-belief. 

We find ourselves in the middle of an unprecedented experiment in secularization.  Let’s keep our minds and hearts open. Let’s try to resist increased polarization and avoid oversimplifying the complex rainbow of human experience.

“Tighten Up!” Self-Control and the Covid Finish Line

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2021

As more people get vaccinated and coronavirus restrictions ease up, public health officials are worried that we will ditch our masks and let down our guard. It is not yet time to celebrate. When you see the finish line, breathe deep and bear down.

Virtues such as patience, fortitude, and endurance are often ignored in a culture of instant gratification. Consumerism feeds the frenzy of appetite. Despite COVID-19 restrictions, we have not generally adopted a Spartan lifestyle. Instead, we have embraced DoorDash, Netflix, and the drive-thru window. Pornography consumption increased under COVID, as did alcoholism and obesity.

A recent survey reports that more than 60% of Americans gained weight while living under lockdown. The average weight gain was 29 pounds. This is worrying since obesity is an important factor in COVID-19 mortality.

Our obesity problem indicates the role that social systems play in supporting good (or bad) habits. Self-control is important. But social circumstances matter. The American Academy of Pediatrics cautions that COVID-related disruptions in school can increase obesity in children, as kids spend more time on screens, exercise less, and eat more unhealthy foods.

Social support helps develop the crucial ability to delay gratification. Delayed gratification is a sign of moral maturity and a key to living well.

The famous Stanford “marshmallow experiment” showed that children who could resist the temptation of immediate gratification ended up with better life outcomes. That experiment forms the basis of a book by Walter Mischel who claims that self-control is “the engine of success.” Critics have pointed out that self-control is linked to class, race, and other social determinants. The children of well-educated families are better at delaying gratification. And affluence may mitigate the negative outcomes of a lack of impulse control.

The question of self-control is as old as the Greeks. Aristotle connected self-regulation with happiness. Pleasure seduces us into making bad choices. Virtue helps us resist the siren-song of unbridled appetite.

Aristotle was puzzled by weakness of will. Why do some people have the ability to control their appetites while others do not? And how come we lose this ability when asleep, drunk, or overcome by strong emotions?

Aristotle compared weak-willed people to beasts. But unlike the beasts, we ought to know better. And we can train ourselves in self-control. Education and social support networks provide the solution. Good education and good friends support good habits.

The ancient Stoics developed this idea into an elaborate system of training in virtue and self-mastery. One important technique is to develop critical thinking. If you really understand what’s good for you, you will do the right thing. And if you really understood what was bad for you, you would avoid it.

But knowledge must be supplemented by habit. Stoic spiritual training also included physical austerities designed to accustom the self to hardship. The Greek root of our word “austerity” also means “bitterness.” The Stoics systematically embraced bitterness. They exposed themselves to cold and to heat. They fasted and abstained from sex. They exercised in the gymnasium and slept on hard beds. And they constantly reminded themselves of illness, grief and death.

Patience, fortitude, and endurance were key virtues for the Stoics. These are important values for living well. But these are not the only values that matter. Sometimes, it is wise to loosen up and enjoy life. Austerity can indeed be bitter. Asceticism needs to be balanced with sweetness and joy.

The Stoics also enjoyed pleasure, but in moderation. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno, was known as a sour-faced and reserved man. But like Socrates, he drank wine occasionally — although he did not get drunk.

There is a time and place for everything. At some point, our masks will come off and we’ll raise a glass at the local watering hole. But Stoic endurance is especially important as the finish line comes into view.

When the philosopher Diogenes was an old man, his friends invited him to rest and take it easy. He thought that was terrible advice. He said that the end of the race is no time to go slack. Rather, as the finish line approaches, we ought to tighten up and put on speed.

Waning Religion and Our Epicurean Moment

Epicurus

Religious membership in the U.S. has dropped below 50% for the first time, according to a recent Gallup Poll.  Some Americans continue to believe in the supernatural.  A 2020 survey indicates that half of Americans believe in ghost and demons.  But it is remarkable that today fewer than half of Americans belong to an organized religion. 

This new data confirms other surveys indicating secularization.  The Pew Center has documented the rapid growth of “the nones” (those who do not claim to belong to a specific religion) and the decline in church attendance. 

Some pundits worry this indicates a cultural malfunction.  Dennis Prager says, “When Judeo-Christian principles are abandoned, evil eventually ensues.”  Shloto Byrnes says that the West is suffering from a “Godless delusion,” arguing that “to be human has meant to be religious throughout history.”  And Shadi Hamid suggests that secularism fuels political extremism. 

These hyperbolic concerns are misguided and misleading.  Many societies have done quite well without Judeo-Christian values.  It is not true that human beings have always been religious in the contemporary sense, or that we need to be.  And rational humanism actually offers an antidote for extremism. 

The Covid-19 crisis provides a great example.  Prayer and miracles will not solve this crisis.  Scientific medicine provides vaccines, prevention protocols, and treatments for infection.  When people get sick these days, they go to the doctor instead of the shaman. 

Scientific naturalism is ubiquitous.  To predict the weather, we consult meteorologists instead of astrologists.  Earthquakes and volcanoes don’t appear to us as the work of mercurial deities who need appeasing.  Reason and humanism provide us with useful advice that improves health and happiness.

And despite what Byrnes says, humanism has a long history.  It made a strong appearance 2,500 years ago in the philosophy of Epicurus.  The Epicurean philosophy aimed to cure the anxiety caused by religious superstition.  Epicurus offered thoroughly naturalistic explanations of earthquakes, lightning, and the like.  The Epicureans taught that happiness was easily obtain by focusing on friendship and virtue in a world emptied of the supernatural. 

The Epicurean philosophy was popular in the ancient world.  But Stoic and Christian authors vilified Epicurean naturalism.  Epicurus’s name was falsely associated with licentiousness and shameless hedonism.  This caricature is unfair to a school that emphasized modesty, frugality, and friendship—and the deliberate avoidance of political extremism.

As a result of persecution, however, few of Epicurus’s original writings exist.  We do know that Epicurus defended an early version of atomism based in a naturalistic view of the world.  His views are remarkably modern. 

Epicurus taught that the cosmos was made up of atoms moving in the void.  He held out the possibility that in the infinite space and time of the universe, there were other worlds that resulted from the same natural processes that produced our world. 

Epicurus said that the soul was merely a combination of certain kinds of atoms.  When the body died, the soul dissipated.  There was no life after death.  If there were gods, they were not concerned about human life.  Religious myths and superstitions caused anxiety by making us worry about the whims of the gods and life after death.  In order to cure that anxiety, a better understanding of nature helps.

Epicureanism also provided an antidote to extremism.  Religious zealots sometimes end up trying to silence the advocates of reasonable naturalism.  They can also fall prey to outrageous conspiracy theories. But rather than engage these zealots in the streets, the Epicureans advised living unobtrusively.  Political tumult results in unhappiness.  The Epicureans tried to avoid that by retreating to private communities, where friendship, reason, and happiness could be cultivated. 

It seems that now is a good time for an Epicurean renewal.  Religion is waning. And while some zealots are succumbing to extremism, most of us are rediscovering the importance of science, reason, and restraint.

The Covid lockdown has also encouraged us to find happiness in simple things.  While extremism and violence has erupted in the streets, we are re-learning the wisdom of living simply and with social distance.  This is an Epicurean moment: a time to rediscover the wisdom of naturalism, a time to turn away from superstition, and a time to cultivate modesty, simplicity, and friendship.