The Briefing, Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TODAY: What the Christmas Buying Season Says About Us / The Perils of State Sponsored Religious Education / Atheist Group Gets Major Funding at a State University / Paul Krugman Wants to Marginalize Opponents of Evolution / The Last Typewriter Leaves the Factory in Britain. I discuss all these and more in today’s edition of The Briefing: A Daily Analysis of News and Events from a Christian Worldview.

1. What the Christmas Buying Season Says About Us

They came, they saw, they bought. Retailers reported billions of dollars in sales on what is now known as “Black Friday,” the Friday after Thanksgiving. For years now, that day has marked the official start of the Christmas buying season. Nevertheless, new developments threaten to displace Black Friday from its primacy.

The first development is “Cyber Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving, which has emerged as the major day for special bargains available through retailers on the Internet. According to Huffington Post: Money, Americans were expected to spend more than $1.5 billion yesterday, setting a new record.

At the same time, USA Today reports that Cyber Monday is itself being displaced by online bargains offered even earlier. As Maria Puente reported, Cyber Monday is being replaced by a cyber season that will last right up to Christmas Eve.

The other development is the fact that several major retailers opened their stores at some point on Thanksgiving Day, attempting to lure customers with advance bargains. This led to no shortage of outrage and discussion, with several commentators lamenting the heartlessness of forcing employees to work on Thanksgiving Day.

Christians must understand the moral complexity of a market economy, and that complexity is fully on display this Christmas shopping season.

We know the dangers of materialism, but we have benefited from an economy that is built on consumer demand. We know that possessions cannot bring true joy, but we are all possessors. A slowdown in sales means that millions will lose their jobs and be unable to feed their families. A shortfall in revenue will hurt corporate bottom lines, but pension funds for retirees and tax support for schools will also be reduced.

It makes no sense to condemn retailers for opening stores on Thanksgiving Day and then turn to make major purchases on the Internet. If retailers do not find a way to compete successfully with online merchants, stores will disappear, leading not only to a loss of community but a net loss of jobs.

There are no easy answers to any of these complex issues. One thing is clear — the retailer most likely to be responsive to these concerns is likely to be local. We are all likely to make purchases online this season, and some in big chain stores as well. But the “Buy Local” movement should be embraced by conservatives as a recognition of the importance of local merchants to the making of a liveable community. That is a conservative virtue we should remember all year long.

2. The Perils of State Sponsored Religious Education

Religious education, of a sort, is required in Britain’s state schools. A new report from Oxford University’s Department of Education indicates that this religious education is not being done well.

Graeme Paton, education editor for The Telegraph [London] reports that academics at Oxford want to help the schools to improve the quality of religious education — especially when it comes to teaching “the traditions and fundamental beliefs of Christians.”

Dr. Nigel Fancourt of Oxford University said that much of the religious education in the schools is “incoherent, lacking in intellectual development, or too stereotypical.”

At the sane time, some teachers shy way from any material that might appear to be “evangelizing.” Though something about Christianity is to be taught in these compulsory classes, there is no guarantee of anything truly representative of Christianity. Add to this the fact that Britain is now one of the most secularized nations on earth. The United Kingdom is also increasingly diverse in religious affiliation, with other religious groups, including humanists, demanding inclusion.

On the one hand, it hardly seems reassuring that the faculty of Oxford University intends to help solve the problem. On the other hand, the real issue is not that the teaching is done poorly, but that it is done at all.

The state — any state — is incompetent to teach Christianity the way any Christian should want it taught. This is the job of churches and Christian families.

Furthermore, when I was writing my book on the New Atheists, Atheism Remix, I discovered that a large percentage of British atheists, including figures such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, repudiated first of all the tepid, lukewarm, lifeless distortion of Christianity they had received in compulsory religious education classes in school. That should serve as a warning to us all.

3. An Atheist Group Gets Major Funding at the University of Wisconsin — Sign of the Future?

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported recently that a group of atheist students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is set to receive almost $70,000 in student fees for personnel and programming next year. This is believed to be the first major funding of an atheist student group at any state university.

As reporter Annysa Johnson revealed:

“An atheist group at the University of Wisconsin-Madison seems on track to receive nearly $70,000 in student fees for staffing and programming next year, in what appears to be a first for the university and student atheist groups nationally. The Atheists, Humanists, and Agnostics, or AHA as it’s called, said it will provide support services for students struggling with doubts about their faiths and offer a safe place where they can discuss religious issues without fear of recrimination.”


“The allocation marks the first time that an atheist group has qualified for funding beyond the small, event-specific grants most student-run organizations receive. And it appears to be the largest ever awarded to any campus group of its kind in the country, according to the Columbus-based Secular Student Alliance. ‘It’s pretty common for groups to have budgets of a few hundred dollars,’ said Alliance spokesman Jesse Galef, whose organization has 383 affiliates around the country, up from 206 in 2009. ‘This is something on a different magnitude entirely,’ he said.”

The decision to fund an atheist student group at the University of Wisconsin follows the appointment of atheist chaplains at several major universities, including Harvard University. Taken together, this is another sign of the increasingly secularized character of the nation’s leading academic institutions.

As sociologist Peter Berger has argued, the most fully secularized regions of the world include the nations of Western Europe and the towns where major American universities are located.

4. Paul Krugman Wants to Marginalize Dissenters from Evolution

Writing in his regular column in The New York Times, economist and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman argues that anyone who dissents from evolution should be seen as pulling the nation onto “a path of inexorable decline.”

In his words:

“We are, after all, living in an era when science plays a crucial economic role. How are we going to search effectively for natural resources if schools trying to teach modern geology must give equal time to claims that the world is only 6,000 years old? How are we going to stay competitive in biotechnology if biology classes avoid any material that might offend creationists?”

He begins his column by assaulting Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida for refusing to say how old he believes the earth to be and for making statements critical of evolution:

“Earlier this week, GQ magazine published an interview with Senator Marco Rubio, whom many consider a contender for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, in which Mr. Rubio was asked how old the earth is. After declaring ‘I’m not a scientist, man,’ the senator went into desperate evasive action, ending with the declaration that ‘it’s one of the great mysteries.'”


“Reading Mr. Rubio’s interview is like driving through a deeply eroded canyon; all at once, you can clearly see what lies below the superficial landscape. Like striated rock beds that speak of deep time, his inability to acknowledge scientific evidence speaks of the anti-rational mind-set that has taken over his political party. By the way, that question didn’t come out of the blue. As speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Mr. Rubio provided powerful aid to creationists trying to water down science education. In one interview, he compared the teaching of evolution to Communist indoctrination tactics— although he graciously added that ‘I’m not equating the evolution people with Fidel Castro.’ Gee, thanks.”

There is more of course, but the main thrust of Mr. Krugman’s column is that those who refuse to accept evolution are a threat to civilization itself. There is an unveiled political agenda to his column, but the worldview dimension is massive.

Krugman is not the first major columnist for The New York Times to be apoplectic about the failure of millions of Americans to accept evolution. He will not be the last.

For evidence of another NYT columnist making a similar argument, see my article “Intellectual or Religious? Kristof Requires a Choice,” December 21, 2004.

5. The Last Typewriter Rolls off the Line in Britain

This past weekend the Financial Times reported that the last typewriter has rolled off the line at the last factory in Britain still manufacturing the antiquarian devices. This is a sad day for those of us who relish the experience of writing on a typewriter.

As the paper reports:

“Touchscreens may look stylish but are perceptually one-dimensional. They will never sport the typewriters’ spirited pushback to the finger’s touch, the imperious clackety-clack sound of the keys, the inky smell (and for some misguided souls, no doubt taste, too). Typewriters’ sensory universe has always been part of their appeal: when a silent typewriter was introduced in the 1940s, it flopped. Even in terms of getting the job done, the old writer’s workhorse may still be one up on the newfangled tools of the trade. Frederick Forsyth has asked: ‘Have you ever tried to hack into my typewriter? It’s very secure.’ And no one using a mechanical typewriter has ever been driven to alt-control-delete, the last hope of the hopeless.”

All of that is true, and though the loss of the typewriter was inevitable, it is also sad. The Financial Times was right — such an event should not go without notice.

I discuss all these stories and more in today’s edition of The Briefing: A Daily Analysis of News and Events from a Christian Worldview. LISTEN HERE

Links to articles cited:

Intellectual or Religious? Kristof Requires a Choice