Friday, Oct 12, 2018

Friday, Oct 12, 2018

The Briefing

October 12, 2018

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, October 12, 2018. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

Why we will likely never know the actual death toll from a storm like Hurricane Michael

It became very clear by midday yesterday that the devastation from Hurricane Michael was extensive throughout the Florida panhandle and into the states of Alabama and Georgia. The epicenter of the storm turns out to be Mexico Beach on the Florida panhandle, just east of Panama City. And as it turns out, the storm was so devastating in that small coastal community that much of the community simply does not now exist.

Film images from the storm indicate both a tidal surge that was up to and above the roof lines in some of the buildings in Mexico Beach and also winds that are almost beyond imagination. Watching the winds go through the pine forest there in the panhandle of Florida and seeing roofs ripped off almost as if they were mere fabric, seeing buildings disappear in time lapse photography, all of this is just a reminder of the power of this kind of storm. A storm that actually defies human imagination.

As of last night, the death toll was standing at about six, but we should note that some of those deaths were not in the panhandle of Florida or even in Georgia and Alabama, but rather in the Carolinas. The reality is that we really do not know and probably will never know the actual death toll from a storm like this.

And you ask the reason why, we are able to document just about everything. We anticipate that every death in the United States is going to be recorded one way or another. Every local jurisdiction requires a cause of death, so why is it that we would not know for certain how many actually died as a result of Hurricane Michael? The answer to that is not just a matter of statistics and math, it’s also, as you might imagine, a matter of politics.

Sheri Fink, explaining this in the New York times yesterday, tells us that the tallying of the dead in the aftermath of this kind of this storm or for that matter, any kind of natural disaster, comes down in part to who will be qualified for benefits from the government after the storm.

Sheri Fink, in her opening paragraph, explains this confusion as she writes, “With Hurricane Michael’s assault on Florida, officials have again begun tracking storm deaths but a look at how death tolls were tallied after Hurricane Florence last month showed that what qualified as a storm related death varied not only state to state and county to county, but even based on who was filling out a death certificate.”

Well, it turns out the federal government has been trying to standardize what deaths are and are not counted as the toll from a major natural disaster, but it also turns out that many of the coroners who were approached by reporters and asked the question of how such deaths are counted seemed not even to be aware of the federal guidelines. And as typical of such government guidelines, the guidelines do not really offer specific and clear guidance in every respect.

The article in the New York Times, for instance, makes clear that there are indirect and direct deaths that are attributable to this kind of natural occurrence. The direct deaths would be deaths that simply cannot be explained other than the actual primary effects of the storm or the natural occurrence. But there are also deaths that are included in the death tolls and oftentimes these deaths are only arguably tangentially or marginally related to the natural occurrence, to the storm, to the earthquake, or the other kind of natural disaster.

But it tells us something important to the Christian worldview, to remember that it tells us how human beings think. It tells us, and this is important, and for that matter this is encouraging, that in the immediate aftermath of this kind of disaster, we want to measure the scale of this disaster not primarily, even in the important measure of dollars and cents, but primarily in the priceless measure of human life.

But it is also significant for us to recognize that nothing human beings conceive of, discuss, or measure is without worldview significance and without the corruption of other kinds of motivations that enter into the picture. Thus, Fink writes, “Inconsistencies in classifying deaths have made it difficult to compare the magnitude of different disasters to understand why people die and to help prevent deaths in future storms.” She ends the paragraph by writing, “Under counting deaths disqualifies survivors from receiving federal funeral assistance.”

Now isn’t that a mixture of categories? That too is telling. So we have the value of human life, the desire to preserve human life, but then it turns out that the count has a great deal to do with who does and does not receive federal funeral assistance.

Other issues have an even deeper significance over the long term. For example, as Fink writes, “The problem with discrepancies and how storm related death tolls are calculated gained attention after Hurricane Maria last year. Puerto Rico’s long held official toll of 64 was dramatically disproved by public health statistics indicating that about 3,000 more people than expected had died in the months after the storm. The vast majority did not die as a direct result of drowning in flood waters or being struck by falling trees, but instead likely lost their lives because of chronic illnesses exacerbated by poor conditions such as prolonged power losses.”

Now, you’re looking at the distinction between not only primary and secondary effects of the disaster, but you’re really beyond secondary here. You’re in primary and secondary and tertiary levels of the kind of impact that follow a natural disaster. That doesn’t make human suffering or human life of a variable calculus depending upon the cause indirect, primary, or secondary of an individual’s death.

But it often does matter politically and economically and in our fallen, very complicated world, that means that we can never ultimately remove those factors from consideration. And often, as we have seen, from controversy.

We also must remind ourselves over and over again that while every structure can be replaced and possessions can certainly be restored or replaced, that is not true for human lives. And that is why it is exactly right to measure the storm or a natural disaster first and foremost as we think of death and the value of human life. And what that points to is that even in a secular age, there is the understanding that human life does not stand in value simply by a human calculation. That very instinct, to begin to ask where is everyone after a storm, reflects the fact that in our hearts, even if not consciously in the minds of all of our neighbors, is the realization that we are creatures of a holy creator. We are not merely cosmic accidents. There is no death toll of cosmic accidents, only of human beings, every single one of them made in the image of God.

Part II

Can big data save us? When it comes to life-threatening decisions, the problem can’t be solved with predictive analytics

We should also note another article that appeared in the New York Times yesterday. This headline, “Why we ride out life threatening storms and do other crazy things.”

Now, you’re going to have to look at any article that tries to explain why human beings do crazy things. Malcolm Roberts is identified as an insurance executive at the end of the article, specifically we are told that he is executive vice president at FM Global, one of the world’s largest commercial and industrial property insurers.

Now, let’s note that he is in the property insurance business, but he’s writing about human behavior and he’s asking the question why do people stay put, even in the face of warnings that make clear leaving could be a matter of saving one’s own life and the lives of loved ones. Why do people stay and decide they are going to try to ride out a storm? Even when they have been told that an entire community or an entire region might be basically wiped out by the storm.

Well, as it turns out, there’s really not much of answer here. But the attempt at an answer is itself really, really interesting. Roberts writes about what he calls, “The seemingly innate refusal of the human mind to appreciate the gravity of a potential disaster before actually experiencing one.” He continues, “As humans, our bias toward denial tempts us to roll the dice, buy scratch tickets, drive fast, jump off cliffs, eat fatty foods, ignore our retirement funds, and generally take too many chances. We let smoke detector batteries die. We build homes in the same flood plains where our last ones were destroyed. When a monster hurricane like Michael is bearing down, some of us ignore evacuation orders thinking our grit will enable us ride it out. It happens,” he says, “every time.”

But the most interesting dimension of this article by Roberts is that he actually thinks the answer to this is math. Seriously, math. Statistics. He begins by saying that denial is, in his words, “hope on steroids.” And he says that one of the problems is that human beings lack the mathematical sophistication to understand prediction and probability. The fact that human beings are basically unable to handle the realities of probability means that we often make bad decisions, simply trusting our instinct rather than what Roberts trusts. It seems he trusts, most of all, the numbers.

Roberts writes that human nature being as it is, human beings take chances. And not only do we take chances, we take chances stupidly. We take chances against the math. We should be convinced on a rational basis, just as a matter of the math, of the percentages, of the predictions, of the statistics. We ought to have the knowledge, we ought to have the intelligence to take the prediction seriously and to understand the threat.

But the point that Roberts is making is that human beings repeatedly indicate we are not good at threat assessment. And what’s even more interesting, we are often least competent when the threat is closest to us. And what I found most fascinating about Roberts’ article is that what he believes could be the game changer isn’t morality at all. It isn’t even understanding human nature. It is instead understanding big data, even more, math.

He writes this, “Governments and insurance companies should share more widely the eerily precise prediction we are getting from big data. At my company,” he says, “we can, for example, pinpoint the single data center in a global company that is most likely to be under water when a flood strikes. In other words,” he says, “we should unleash the power of predictive analytics and brings it to the doorsteps of people who live in harm’s way even though they deny it.”

But then, even more interestingly he continues, “All of this education, this pre-experiencing disaster, would underscore the critical need to focus on prevention and building resilience against threats that are easier for people simply to deny.”

Now, here’s a new category: pre-experiencing disaster. What exactly would that mean? Well, Roberts means utilizing big data, massive math. In order to create models so that persons that might be in harm’s way can be shown these massive models based upon big data and might then pre-experience disaster in order to avoid making a stupid decision and taking wrong chances.

He concludes his article by writing, “The standard warnings may fall on deaf ears, but if they could pre-experience a catastrophe, perhaps they would listen up and take some precautions.”

Now, from a Christian worldview perspective, we have to understand that the problem of human nature is not likely, I think this is an understatement, to be overcome with math. Even if it’s big math, big data. It might indeed serve to intensify a warning if those in potential harm’s way could be shown the models and the analytics, graphics, maybe that would convince some. But the reality is, and this is especially true if you’ve been tracking human nature in the face of these disasters over years, the reality is there are going to be people who say, “I will stay. I will ride it out. I’m going to be fine.”

If the human problem were reducible to math, we could solve it with math. But as we know, it is not fundamentally a problem of math. It’s a far deeper level that’s not going to be met with predictive analytics.

Part III

The real lesson of National Freethought Day: A mind free of belief in God is actually the least free of all

Next we turn to a matter of our cultural calendar. Perhaps you did not know it, but according to the calendar today is National Free Thought Day. That’s right, October 12, 2018 is the day to celebrate free thought on our calendar or so we are told.

The genesis of this goes back to the effort to try to improve the cultural and national profile of freethinkers. That’s a constellation that would include atheists and agnostics and well, just about anyone that defines themselves in opposition to theism, in opposition to the scripture, in opposition to any form of creed or confession.

Now, before going even further, we need to understand from a Christian worldview perspective that the person who declares himself or herself to be most free from a creed or confession is probably most bound to it. Even if unconsciously so. When you’re talking about atheism and agnosticism or any other secular worldview, you are not talking about a worldview devoid of values. Rather, you are talking about a worldview that has it’s own form of orthodoxy, that has it’s own creeds and it’s own confessions. If only defined by what is not believed rather than by what is believed.

But the purpose of this National Free Thought Day is annually to provide an opportunity for those who define themselves as freethinkers but have maybe never made that identity public, to do so and to effectively come out of the closet. A national coming out day for unbelievers. It’s also interesting to note that this day, October 12th follows October 11th, which according to some LGBTQ groups, is national coming out day for those identities.

So, here we are in October. It turns out to be an interesting month. But it also turns out that the publicity put out by secular associations for National Free Thought Day is also very, very interesting. For example, the website devoted to the day, we read, “National Free Thought Day is observed annually on October 12th. The purpose of this national day is to encourage people to be freethinkers and to base opinions on facts, science, logic, and reason.”

This day, we are told, occurs on the anniversary of the effective end of the Salem Witch Trials on October 12, 1692. Now the celebration tied to the end of the Witch Trials is supposed to remind us of the need for, well there are those words again, facts, science, logic, and reason. Because we are told that what happened at the end of the Salem Witch Trials was the victory of facts, science, logic, and reason over Bible, over theology, over any understanding of the supernatural.

But is that even actually the case? The Salem Witch Trials, when they came to an end were partly ended by the fact that courts began to reject so-called spectral evidence. What was the spectral evidence? It was evidence of a supernatural character. It was mystical. It was, for that matter, pretty creepy. And it is a bad mark on our nation’s history that anyone was ever convicted on the basis of anything like spectral evidence.

So, was the end of spectral evidence a victory for secularism? Was it a victory for a kind of secular understanding of facts and reason and logic and science? No, it turns out it wasn’t any such thing. But the reality is going to be inconvenient for the secularists who want to celebrate National Free Thought Day. The reality is that the end of the use of spectral evidence didn’t come from arguments made from a secular understanding at all, but rather from those who represented traditional orthodox Christianity. For example, the leading figures in this were two Mathers, Cotton Mather and Increase Mather.

Cotton Mather, even by some of the records pointed to by the leaders of National Free Though Day, actually took the lead in advising cautions against the use of such magical evidence. And furthermore, his own father, Increase Mather, had specifically condemned this kind of evidence in his book, “Cases of Conscience.” He stated, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.”

So how in the world do you get National Free Thought Day when you celebrate the achievement made by two very well identified Christians arguing as Christians?

Well, I guess perhaps we could explain it this way, that the people who are behind National Free Thought Day, who want to point to facts, science, logic, and reason, want to point to rather selected facts.

One secular society suggested that this free thought coming out day held on October 12th should allow newly declared freethinkers to gain strength and support from fellow open freethinkers and from other October free thought holidays, you didn’t know about these perhaps, well now you do. International Free Thought month and Separation of Church and State day. Order those cakes from the bakers before the big rush.

Now remember that this movement desperately seeks to be taken seriously when they talk about a coming out for freethinkers, they are talking about forcing the society to recognize the legitimacy and for that matter, the normalization of disbelief, of the rejection of any kind of theistic worldview. So listen to the language at one of their sites. “In this day and age in the United States, discrimination, hatred, and bias against freethinkers is still allowed, even promoted, by many in this country. Unlike the gay and lesbian community,” I read, “the free thought community does not have the powerful voice and activist population necessary to end such treatment. It is time to change this situation for the better of all freethinkers, especially the young.”

Now, we have noted as cultural change takes place in a society that one movement often tries to capitalize on the gains of another movement. That happened when the gay rights movement, as it was known then, sought to capitalize on the gains of the civil rights movement that had preceded it. We also have to note that the same kind of logic was behind the abortion rights movement. Following on the civil rights movement, they characterized abortion as a woman’s civil right.

So you had the gay rights movement following the abortion rights movement following the civil rights movement and now you have straight forwardly in the claim made at this secular association’s site that the effort is to have the free thought movement follow the gay rights movement.

One of the most bizarre of the claims made celebrating this day at secular seasons is, “These reactions often stem from a lack of understanding about what it is to be a freethinker. The fact,” here’s the most important words, “the fact that it is a mindset that often set in motion in childhood and like sexual preference, is not something one can change with a whim or the right religion. Nor should it be something others try to change.”

So, now of all bizarre developments, we have a serious argument that we have a theological orientation that is fixed and can’t be changed? Like the argument that the gay rights movement successfully used about sexual orientation? That it is innate and can’t be changed and shouldn’t be changed? Buckle your seat belts for where this kind of logic is going to take us.

G.K. Chesterton famously quipped, I’m paraphrasing him here, that the unbeliever doesn’t worship nothing. Eventually the unbeliever worships everything. And all of this is quickly translated into nonsense. Consider the activity suggestions offered by secular seasons and offered to secularists as a way to celebrate National Free Thought Day. For instance, hold a community self outing. How would you out yourself as a freethinker? Well, it is suggested that perhaps that would mean holding a meeting in which one would “read passages from the works of famous free thought writers such as Mark Twain, George Elliott, Shakespeare, Isaac Asimov, Harland Ellison, etc.”

Now, I suppose they think that’s going to draw a crowd. Secondly it is suggested, and no, I am not making this up, “Start a free thought quilt.” “Quilts with an historical theme can often be easy for a group to make, especially over a period of time. Have your group look up details about quilt making on the internet. Use a simple pattern and create a local free thought quilt using colors, symbols, events, and people from the free thought movement.”

Now, I ask you in all seriousness, what is the color of believing nothing? The other suggestions include doing a good deed for the community which includes the suggestion of having a statue cleaned. And then practicing random acts of kindness, I’ll let you define that on your own. And then finally, becoming a mentor to a young freethinker, which suggests contacting the secular students association high school program “and see about becoming a mentor to a young high school freethinker.” We are then told, “This could mean the difference between a young person feeling alone or feeling part of the larger movement.”

What’s so sad about this is how seriously it is put forth. This is simply one of the cries of the human heart. What you find here in this kind of movement is not only a desire for secular recognition, even for the normalization of a worldview in the larger society, it is for what no secular worldview can ever, ever possibly provide. There is a yearning here for meaning, there is a yearning here authenticity. There is a yearning here for truth. There is a yearning here for fellowship. None of those things are going to come by means of secularism.

The Bible indicates that the mind that is actually least free is the one that declares itself to be totally free from belief in God. It is in the Psalms that we read that the fool has said in his heart that there is no God. That’s not a good place to start. Contrast that to what we find in the opening verses of the very first Psalm, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

As this week of The Briefing comes to a close, I’ll let the Psalmist have the last word.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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