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Question 47: Are there miracles?

April 30, 2013

The dictionary defines a miracle as:

“An event that appears inexplicable by the laws of nature
and so is held to be supernatural in origin or an act of God”[1]

Many religious texts refer to moments of healing as miracles, Jesus creating wine from water is a typical example, and any sports aficionado can name several “miracle” plays. When you see the definition, it’s fair to say the term might be overused in relation to sporting exploits.

One the most important questions about the “laws of nature” is if we actually know what they are. Is it really written in stone you can’t instantaneously turn water into wine? Who says you can’t be raised from the dead, have your sight restored or walk on water?

Whether it’s virgin birth, manna from heaven or a glorious conquest, any claim to miracle status for these events cannot be substantiated by anything other than myth or a potentially biased historic record[2]. On this basis, we really should be asking

“Do miracles exist in today’s society?”

The pertinence of this question becomes even more compelling when you consider the magnitude of intellectual and scientific achievement over the last few hundred years. With all of the advanced technology and thought we’ve generated over the last century or so, have we eliminated the existence of miracles?

I don’t think so.

Of course, in today’s appropriately skeptical society, the bar for something to be perceived as a genuine, unadulterated “miracle” is much higher. There are certainly medical moments that give us pause:

a)     Tumors shrinking for reasons unknown
b)    Extraordinary tales of survival
c)     Maternal feats of strength to save children

In the future, all of these may be explained –  perhaps we’ll even find some people who are genetically predisposed to “miracles” – but I see limited value in arguing the case as:

1)     Belief in miracles may be the explanation for some of these events and I’m not going to mess with that.
2)     Until everything is explained, I’ll give God the benefit of the doubt on this one.
3)     Some events we observe, say life for example, are so spectacularly improbable, let’s enjoy the “miracle” regardless of its source.


Ultimately, using the definition we started with, the only way to truly show a miracle has occurred is to:

a)     Know the laws of nature completely
b)    Identify something as impossible
c)    Show it happened
d)    Attribute it to God

Our daily lives are punctuated with the results of JOE and RUTH, many of which are highly improbable and may be incorrectly attributed to God.

While I’m not prepared to discount the possibility of miracles occurring, it’s possible the real miracles are when individuals or groups, through commitment and intellect, use their connection with their God to create positive contributions within their society.

[1] American Heritage Dictionary – online

[2] This doesn’t make them any less legitimate, just harder to prove.

100 ?’s for Gov’t: Is it unrealistic to aim for perfection?

April 27, 2013

This is Question 25 from “100 Questions for Government” series

If you’re rich, a corporation, highly educated or even part of the “shrinking middle class the current state of government probably doesn’t significantly affect your life. Sure, occasionally you may have to deal with too much bureaucratic red tape, pay what may or may not be excessive taxes, or be impacted by crimes, but overall you have a pretty good life. You are a citizen of the most powerful nation on earth, have access to cheap goods and services and can practice whatever religion (or lack thereof) you wish.

If you’re born poor, or are part of a family that lives paycheck to paycheck you are:

1)   Not alone (about 30% of the population is in this position)[1]

2)   Unlikely to pay tax because you don’t earn enough

3)   At greater risk of:

  1. Receiving a poorer education
  2. Going to jail
  3. Dying younger
  4. Suffering a crime
  5. Passing these traits on to your children

This volume of people is supplemented by another group who just make do while continually being constrained by the economics of making ends meets.

This is not the only flaw of the US system, and if you believe the “survival of the fittest” should be applied to the building of nations, you may not consider it a flaw at all. However, even if you feel no empathy for the “also rans” in capitalist game of life, you may want to consider the risks that come from ignoring the needs of a third of all voters. If you’re unsure of the possibilities, it may be worth reviewing the historic rise of communism or fascism.

Now here’s the kicker – while my focus on the need for greater equity and protecting the unprotected makes me sound like a “bleeding heart” liberal, I agree with many of the conservatives that we should minimize the size of government and that spending needs to be reduced (preferably in the short-term and definitely in the long-term). The basic questions are can we:

1)   And do we, want to do a better job of helping fellow citizens who need it?

2)   Find true inefficiencies in the system and fix them?

3)   Make elections and government reflect the needs and wants of the people?

4)   Effectively prioritize what should be governed and what should not?

5)   Intelligently offset competing goals to optimize the result?

6)   Have our cake and eat it too?

7)   See a future better than the one we have now?

The future we’re offering ourselves right now is more of the same. The question is whether the American people can force their politicians out of the current rut and support them in making radical decisions to get the country back on the right track. This is not an issue that should be defined by political parties or ideologies – we have plenty of smart people on both sides who can come to the right Initial Opinions if they step back from the tactical games they’re playing and chart an intelligent strategy to move forward.

Initial Opinion:

If we want more of the same, we can just keep doing what we’re doing. We can waste enormous amounts of energy calling people names, arguing over irrelevancies and encouraging political gridlock, or we can choose to move forward recognizing the strengths and merits of varying perspectives. We can send our politicians to legislate without ultimatums but with room to make the decision they feel is right for the particular situation. If we do this in a new environment which encourages results for the country rather than the politician or party, we may just get the future our country deserves.

Question 74: Does God value ritual and rules?

April 23, 2013

From the sacrifice of vestal virgins to the act of kneeling for prayer, throughout history most religions have shown a tendency to create rituals perceived to honor their God(s). Similarly, based on a moral framework, many religions have taken it upon themselves to create rules for life – some of which are general (e.g. Thou shall not kill) and others of which are specific (e.g. no chocolates on the first Thursday of the second month of the first year divisible by 16 in each century)[1].

While the offing of virgins seems to have declined in popularity, many ancient rituals and rules persist. If we believe there are fundamental truths, or our God should be respected, there’s a strong argument for this happening. However, you only have to look at the Old Testament to see hundreds of rituals[2] and rules cast aside by most or all modern day Jews. A quick study of other religions is likely to find a similar turnover of ideas – some standing the test of time and others falling by the wayside (seems sort of evolutionary doesn’t it).

If you subscribe to a religion or belief system where none of the rules or rituals changed throughout its history, there’s a decent chance its history is short  or it has a very small following. Whether they like it or not, religious leaders have had to respond to changes in cultural mores and dilemmas created by new technologies and lifestyles. When these changes occur, they might be incremental (e.g. removing a ritual from the act of worship) or profound (e.g. allowing female priests)[3]. Regardless, they represent recognition by the faith’s leaders that acquisition of greater knowledge, and reflection with God on its meaning and implications, may lead us to conclude:

a)                 What we perceived to be important may not be.
b)                Our current perceptions of God’s values are wrong or incomplete.

This brings us back to God’s valuing of ritual and rules. We have already established God’s predisposition to good (Bravo, God!) and if you have a belief in God, I suspect it’s not presumptuous of me to assume you feel she deserves respect. This provides the basis for addressing the two items separately.

Rituals by their nature are designed to show respect for the God in question. Even if my God is not an egomaniac, it’s reasonable to suggest she might value me showing respect in a manner consistent with my beliefs. If I feel eating pork would be disrespectful, the act of choosing not to do so is implicitly respectful, and doesn’t hurt anyone other than the pork farmers (who have already accepted the right of consumers to choose). To this degree, I would expect God to value ritual.

As soon as a religion or believer chooses a ritual destructive in its nature (e.g. animal or human sacrifice, denigrating or belittling others) I believe God would put other values ahead of it. In the battle of values, ritual can only be regarded as brittle when compared to life, honesty, tolerance and other higher concepts.

Rules differentiate themselves from ritual by reaching outside the act of worship and into our interaction with both believers and non-believers. They create a structure for us to address problems and dilemmas as we face them, and are generally driven by the truths we, or our religion, perceive. Their importance to our God will be driven by one factor only – whether they are right.


Within some religions or belief systems, rules and rituals have an important role in showing respect for God and creating a framework for believers. As with any structure, time can identify the weak points and renovations may have to be made. In some cases, the structure may be so dilapidated it needs to be replaced – the only constant is the need for continual consultation with God.





[1] I’m not privy to which religion has this rule but you get the idea

[2] A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs (2007) gives a decent overview of this

[3] The Pope’s recent comments on condom use would be another example

100 ?’s for Gov’t: What public good is there in public goods?

April 20, 2013

This is Question 5 from “100 Questions for Government” series

When our perspective on our “society” was a family or clan, the idea of public goods was probably limited to a shared pot or campfire. In our modern society, the amount of public infrastructure underpinning our lives is breathtaking. Hands up if you’d like to live without:

  1. Fresh water
  2. Sewers
  3. Roads
  4. Public schools
  5. Traffic lights
  6. Public parks
  7. National forests or parks
  8. Airports
  9. Defense
  10. Law enforcement

Yes, many of these services could be privatized, and we can discuss the merits of each item later in this book, but at least some of these items should merit a “I’d like to keep that if I could.”

Without getting deeply philosophical (which you know is not my thing), if one of the items on the list holds some merit for you, you can probably see two obvious Initial Opinions

  1. There can be public good in public goods and services
  2. Maybe there’s an argument for some sort of government

If none of these items have any merit as goods or services provided by government, it might be time to put down this book and genuinely consider the potential flaws of an army populated by mercenaries with no national affiliation, National Parks run to make a profit or an education system where only the wealthy can participate.

If none of this gets you across the line, good luck protecting your assets (financial, property, intellectual, etc.) without a fully functioning, vaguely independent justice system.

As you might surmise, in a society that has evolved from city states to nation states, it seems a little counterintuitive to roll everything back to when the public goods were insignificant or non-existent. Of course, accepting the value of common infrastructure and benefits doesn’t answer the key questions of:

  1. Which of these should the government provide?
  2. Who should pay for them?

We’ll explore both of these issues at some stage but there’s an excellent chance the answer to the first question can be broken into three groups:

  1. Stuff the government should always do or control
  2. Stuff that could go either way
  3. Stuff they should stay out of

As to who foots the bill, there are really only two choices:

  1. User pays
  2. Poor users get subsidized by not so poor users

Each government and society has to determine what inalienable deliverables should be available to all citizens regardless of their circumstances (e.g education worthy of thought, cable TV not so much) and which offerings will require a financial qualification. The collective decision on this issue will say a lot about the beliefs of the people and be a key determinant of the success of that nation.

Initial Opinion:

We’ve passed the point of no return when it comes to public goods – our modern society requires so many infrastructure projects, many of which may have arguable economic merit[1], that the only solution is government sponsorship. This doesn’t give our politicians carte blanche to spend indiscriminantly, but there’s a strong possibility they should be spending on at least a few items we care about.

[1] A great opportunity for discussion one would think!

Question 50: Does God uphold the laws of the land?

April 16, 2013

Although this may be a relatively easy question to answer, it’s important to address as it reminds us:

a)     We’re merely one point in a multi-billion year history
b)    How custom and society mould our thinking while we’re not watching
c)     What other people tell us is the “word of God” should always be tested against our own personal understanding of our God

History is littered with examples of historic assumptions resulting in laws or dictates which most, many or all people would now reject. Even today we see moments where the law of the land, whether influenced by religious belief or not, seems in distinct contrast to what a fair and just God would support. For example,

a)     A woman who is raped should not be stoned for adultery.
b)    A child should not be married.
c)     A woman should not be denied education purely due to her sex.
d)    Two people who love each other should be allowed to marry.

You are entitled to your own opinions on these issues, and you could definitely argue the examples given are influenced by my personal beliefs and experiences. While these represent a small sampling of laws influenced by history and religion, if you see any as inconsistent with the values of your God, it should act as a flag for your dissent. If leaders of your religion are arguing for this law, it’s possible they have misinterpreted the wishes of your God. If it can happen once, it can happen again – history and our religious advisors can be fallible[1].

Unconvinced? If you’re a believer, has your religion or its leaders ever tolerated or endorsed slavery, racism, the inequality of women, child molestation, regal or caliphate misconduct, religious intolerance, torture, religious war, the occasional raping and pillaging or forced removal of children from their parents? If so:

1.     You’re not alone.
2.     There’s an excellent chance it was, or is, wrong.
3.     It could happen again.

The endorsement of fundamentally bad acts by religious leaders is not an indictment of their religion or God – it’s a reflection of their failure to create a genuine connection to God on the issue due to the time, assumptions and society they lived in.

As a continuing work in progress, we should never assume the laws of the land guarantee justice or reflect the morality of our God. History shows the legal system has been wrong before. Only by people genuinely testing their own beliefs, and then choosing to stand up for what they believe is right, can we continue to progress to a better alignment between human justice and God’s justice.


If the law is just, God will endorse it. If the law is unjust, God has probably been cajoling us to get it right for some time. She’ll keep offering her opinion until someone listens, stands up and makes it right.

[1] If your religion has no failures, rethinks, inconsistencies, misguided followers or historic mistakes, you may ignore this observation. I also have bridge to sell you.