Skepticism, Religion Archive

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Really Caused the Civil War?

Civil War SoldiersI remember being taught in my history classes back in my school days that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. But as I got older, I saw a lot more contrarian views that said it was about other issues, like states rights, tariffs, or other economic issues. This topic has come up a lot more recently with the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and I even had a conversation with a friend who thinks the Civil War was mainly caused by tariffs. Looking at the survey results in a Pew article, Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive, nearly 48% of people think the war was primarily about states's rights, with only 38% thinking it was primarily about slavery.

Had I been misled all those years in history class? It wouldn't be the first time school had gotten something wrong. I decided to look into it, and what better source is there than the secession documents the states themselves wrote listing their justifications for seceding from the U.S. ? Below is a link to the full text of the secession documents from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These are the official reasons those states themselves gave for seceding.

Civil War Trust - The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

If you go through and read those documents, there's one primary issue that jumps out as being repeated over and over - slavery. Even when the documents discuss states' rights, it's in the context of slave-holding vs. non-slave-holding states, or as a rationale of why the states should be allowed to secede. But if the seceding southerners themselves are to be believed, slavery was the primary reason for their secession.

Here are a few highlights from the various documents. First, here are the first two sentences from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Here're the first two paragraphs from the Mississippi document:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina mentioned 'slaveholding States' in the first paragraph, but most of its introduction was about the states rights justification for being allowed to secede. But after that, all their reasons for wanting to leave are slavery related. Here's one of those paragraphs (note the way it callously refers to owning slaves as 'rights of property'):

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The Texas document started off with a little background on Texas's admission into the U.S., and had a couple paragraphs about the federal government not providing sufficient security, but the bulk is about slavery. Here's an especially bad paragraph:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The Virginia document was very short, without much justification given for why they were seceding. The first paragraph was about the extent of their justification. Note that it does specifically mention 'Southern Slaveholding States'.

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, it's true that the full causes of the war are a little more complicated than that. While the north (i.e. the United States) was generally opposed to slavery, I'm not sure most people were so opposed that there was majority support to go to war over it. Many in the north supported the war to maintain the country. But it's rather clear that the primary cause for secession in the south was slavery.

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As an aside, I'll mention how I personally feel about this shameful aspect of our nation's history. Although I grew up in 'Yankee' states, I have ancestors from southern states, so I have heritage from both sides of the war. And while there are lots of aspects of my heritage I'm proud of, this certainly isn't one of them. When I see the Confederate flag, the feeling I get is what I'd imagine a German has when they see the Nazi flag. Slavery was a horrible, disgraceful institution, responsible for untold suffering through this country's history, culminating in a population of 4 million slaves at its peak. That slavery was ever practiced here is bad enough, but that it took a war to bring it to an end, that there were people willing to fight to the death to defend their right to own other human beings, is simply shameful.

We shouldn't necessarily demonize the people of the past, recognizing the Zeitgeist that permeated the culture ("no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit"). But we definitely shouldn't celebrate that part of our history, with monuments and memorials to the leaders of that shameful period, nor by proudly displaying any symbols of the Confederacy. That's not to say those symbols should be hidden and forgotten about. They should be maintained in museums. Slavery and the Civil War are a part of our history, and like the concentration camps in Germany, they must be remembered to remind ourselves of what normal people are capable of in the wrong circumstances, guarding against similar atrocities in the future.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Eben Alexander Follow-Up, Part II

Eben AlexanderLast year, I wrote two blog entries about Eben Alexander, Eben Alexander Misrepresenting Carl Sagan, where I described how Alexander had completely misrepresented one of Sagan's positions from his book, The Demon Haunted World, and Eben Alexander Follow-Up, where I described how he had doubled down on this misrepresentation when confronted with it. Like I wrote then, it's not so much the fact that he made a mistake that was troubling, but that he did it with such supreme confidence, even citing the page number, and then refused to back down once his mistake had been pointed out, even going on to misrepresent the person who had pointed out his mistake. These were not the signs of an honest person.

Just recently, an old article about Alexander that had been hidden behind a paywall has once again been made public. It's an article investigating Alexander's main claim to fame, his supposed near death experience where he spent a week in heaven, and which was the subject of his best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. It's a bit of a long article, but well worth the read. Not only does it reveal some of Alexander's troubled past before his near death experience, it also shows the inconsistencies between Alexander's recollection of events and the recollection of the medical staff caring for him. One could be charitable and suggest that perhaps Alexander's memory of the events had changed (after all, as illustrated in The Challenger Study, memory is rather plastic), but at the very least it calls into question the central premise of his book, and makes it seem like hallucinations and misremembered events at best (or outright lying at worst).

Anyway, here's the link to the article:

Esquire - The Prophet

I highly recommend this story to anyone who's heard about Alexander's claims.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Does Evolution Imply the Meaning of Life Is to Reproduce

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and EverythingI've seen quite a few people who seem to think that evolution implies that the meaning or purpose of life is to reproduce. Just Google the phrase, the purpose of life is to reproduce, and you'll find plenty of examples of people proposing or debating this interpretation. Even Scientific American has a blog entry, Is the Meaning of Your Life to Make Babies?, which partially supports this view. While that article does recognize that we can have other meanings besides evolutionary ones, it still implies that this evolutionary meaning is real:

So is making babies -- and having genes survive through the generations -- the meaning of life? The answer is yes -- from an evolutionary gene's eye view. Making babies, and also other actions and social structures that result in the survival and reproduction of one's gene, such as protecting one's relatives. Differential reproduction is a process which, in conjunction with environmental interactions, has led to all life as we know it, with all its diversity and grandeur, including conscious experience itself. This is modern knowledge that is not to be taken lightly, and has impact on how we view our own meaning.

But from almost every other perspective -- individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole -- the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives -- from life as it is actually experienced -- is up to us. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.

However, I think any interpretation that says the meaning of life is to reproduce is misguided, since it's an answer to a misguided question. Other than meanings we ascribe to ourselves, life has no meaning. Reproducing and leaving copies of our genetics isn't meaning, it's just a description of what happens. When a boulder falls off a cliff, gravity means it will fall. Does that mean the meaning of the boulder was to fall, or is it just that the act of falling is what happens due to gravity?

Or consider a river. Do rivers have a meaning? Do they have a purpose? Sure, they return water to oceans, but that's simply what happens due to water flowing downhill and collecting in the lowest regions. There's no meaning to it. It's just the result of physics.

That's how it is with evolution. Organisms that are more 'fit' in whatever sense that means for their environment have more offspring, which means their genes become more prevalent. But that's no more a meaning or purpose than a river flowing downhill. It's just a description of what happens.

Meaning and purpose only make sense in relation to a conscious entity. Genes are not conscious entities. Nature is not a conscious entity. Evolution is not a conscious entity. So it makes no sense to describe the results of evolutionary processes as having any meaning or purpose. They're simply results.

Image Source: I made it myself. And if you don't get the reference - 42.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Supreme Court Clears the Way to Marriage Equality

Marriage Equality Logo from Human Rights CampaignThis is going to be posted all over every news site and many, many other blogs besides this one, but I just can't help but share in the good news. The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of marriage equality. Here's a link to the article from MSNBC, Supreme Court rules in favor of marriage equality.

There were two questions before the court, whether states had to license same-sex marriages, and whether states had to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Happily, the court ruled yes to both questions.

The vote was closer than I would have liked to have seen. I'm not really surprised at Alito, Scalia, or Thomas, but I was hoping Roberts would have been on the right side. I know it might not have been the original intention of the 14th Amendment, but I don't see how someone from today could read that amendment and not think it mandates marriage equality. And to the people arguing that this decision overturns the will of the people - that's the whole point of this amendment and the Bill or Rights, to ensure that people's rights aren't trampled by the tyranny of the majority.

Oh well, I'll leave it to other sites to analyze and discuss the decision in more detail. I'm just happy to share the good news.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons (Human Rights Campaign Marriage Equality Logo)

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Book Update - New Third Edition!

Book Cover to God? Leaving Christianity: A Collection of Essays by Jeff Lewis
Support independent publishing: Buy this book on Lulu.

I've published* a new update to my book, God? Leaving Christianity - only $4.99 from LuLu (also available for free online - but that doesn't make nearly as nice of a gift...) The book is a collection of some of my best essays on religion, both chronicling my thought process in abandoning belief and explaining some of my more recent thoughts on the subject. I've kept the book relatively short, just over 100 pages, to keep it as a reasonable introduction to non-belief that won't be overwhelming to readers.

I know it's hard to be impartial about a book I've written myself, but from the reactions of friends who have read the book, I feel comfortable recommending it. One of my friends, after reading the book, went and bought ten copies so that he could give them away to other people to read. The most recent friend I gave a copy to sent multiple text messages while reading the book to say how much he liked certain passages.

I usually order a small batch of books at a time to have some on hand to give to people who want a copy (I never push it on people, and only give it to people who actually ask for it). However, that most recent friend also received the last copy from the most recent batch, so I figured I'd read through and make a few revisions before ordering another batch, creating a new third edition.

If you're one of the select few who already owns the first edition, there are two new essays in this book. You can either read those essays online, or download a pdf copy with the link below. The pdf is formatted to print out as a booklet on 8 1/2" x 11" paper. Even if your printer doesn't have auto duplexing, Adobe Reader has options to print out a booklet.
Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.Supplement - Two More Essays.2015-06-23.pdf

For that matter, if you want to download a pdf of the entire book, you can do that, too, with this link:
Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf Religious Essays.booklet.2015-06-23.pdf

However, I really do recommend the LuLu paperback version for people who want a hard copy. With the glossy cover and perfect binding, it's a much nicer form factor than anything most people can print out on home equipment. And at only $4.99, it's not that expensive.

If you just want to read the essays, you can do that online for free. But if you want a nice physical copy that you can hold in your hands or give to someone as a present, then go buy the book from LuLu**. Just in case you missed the multiple links in this post or the ad in the sidebar, here's the link to buy the book one last time:

Buy the book: God? Leaving Christianity


* I'm using 'published' in a loose sense, as it's really self-published from a print on demand company. As I've written before, this is the modern version of a vanity press, but without the expense of paying for a print run.

** Another option if you want the book is to befriend me and just ask for a copy, but then you'd have to know me in person.

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