Donald Andrew Henson II

Archive for the ‘American Society’ Category

What Happens to the Protestant Work Ethic When There’s No Work?

In American Economy, American Society, Religion and Money on March 10, 2017 at 8:45 pm

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It is a rare opportunity that a working stiff like me gets to take a few weeks off from work for no particular reason – not sick or laid off, haven’t received a financial windfall or a lottery payout (I wish!), nor have I suddenly become a member of the moneyed leisure class. I’ve simply finished up a contract with my previous employer, and so far am not overly excited about any of the others I’ve been offered. So, I’ve temporarily absconded to SE Asia where costs are low enough that I can do absolutely nothing, on the cheap while job hunting. (If you’re interested, I’ll soon be posting my travel adventures at nevercomingback.com).

When not engaged in the monotonous tasks of writing cover letters and doing Skype interviews, I’ve been catching up on all the books, articles, and TED talks I didn’t have time to indulge in when working. I find that a lot of what I’m reading/listening to has to do with the decline of the American Dream, and the precarious future in store for those of us who need to work for a living.

Of course, whenever a person is out of work, even by choice, there’s at least a tiny voice in the back of his head telling him he’ll never work again. Go a few days without even so much as an automated response to your inquiries, and that voice becomes decidedly louder. Perhaps that’s where my interest in this topic is coming from.

But I think I’ve also sought out information of this sort because of the recent elections in the US; it seems a man laughably/frighteningly unequal to to the task of being president was put in that office because of the great anxiety people have about the disappearance of quality work. There’s a common belief, it seems, that the grand old industrial economy of yore will come roaring back, once the demons of over-regulation, over-taxation, illegal immigration, and poorly-negotiated trade deals are exorcised.

However, I’m finding that the truth of the matter is that kind of economy is disappearing forever – not because the Chinese or illegals are doing them on the cheap, but because technology is making them obsolete.

Elon Musk thinks we could easily be looking at 15% unemployment in 10 years’ time, due to new technologies. Two Oxford scholars say that 47% of American jobs are at risk of being taken over by algorithms in the next 20 years. A recent Business Insider article predicts that automation will create unemployment rates of 50-75% worldwide in the coming years. In some European countries, unemployment of twenty-somethings already stands at 20%. And it’s not because they picked the wrong majors – those much-vaunted STEM degrees provide the kinds of skills that are MOST likely to be replicated by a computer in the very near future.

Yuval Noah Harari writes in ‘The rise of the useless class’ that “99 percent of human qualities and abilities are simply redundant for the performance of most modern jobs.” Ironically, our over-specialization over the past decades has made it much easier for us to be replaced by a machine or algorithm.

In a way, this is basically what happened 300-500 years ago, during the English enclosures. For centuries, there had been common areas of land that were reserved for public welfare. The landed gentry controlled the vast majority of real estate, but peasants were allowed to hold back a portion of their agricultural produce, and were free to hunt or cultivate crops in these common areas in order to ensure their survival. However, by the 1500s, land owners were finding they could make better returns from large scale agriculture, so they began to purchase common areas, enclose small holdings into larger plantations, and to remove unnecessary laborers from their land. For centuries the labor of small farmers had been required; when no longer needed, thousands were removed from the land with little or no consideration as to how they might survive.

Wikipedia says, “Marxist and neo-Marxist historians argue that rich landowners used their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit.” I hardly see how it can be argued any other way – and we see a similar government takeover by the wealthy elite happening in the US today.

Fortunately, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution were just underway and, although I’m sure there were instances of deprivation and hunger, perhaps starvation, the towns and cities where cottage industries were starting up were able for the most part to absorb that labor. Historians seem to be divided as to whether this excess labor allowed the Industrial Revolution to occur – or whether it was just lucky timing for the displaced farmers. In any event – people were able to find work, and were able to continue to exchange their labor for the necessities of life.

But what if they hadn’t?  What if those deprived of a livelihood suddenly had nowhere to go?  What if the financial and technological changes of that century had simply created a surplus of half of the labor force, with millions of people finding there was no market for their skills?

Coming back to the 21st century, consider a not-so-hypothetical situation. Imagine an incredibly powerful artificial intelligence (AI) is developed in the next couple of years, a breakthrough so dramatic that by say 2025, it could replace the jobs that 95% of us currently do. All of the goods and services we currently enjoy in the West could be provided to everyone in the world, with dramatically improved efficiency and reduced cost. Natural resources would still exploited, cars and iPhones still assembled, food still produced and packaged, beer still brewed and whisky distilled. it’s just that the services of you and me – and six billion other people – are no longer be required.

Let’s assume that the owners of such a technology just happened to be the top 1% that control the vast majority of capital in the world already – safe enough assumption. Perhaps another 4% would be needed in some kind of maintenance or management role. What would we do with everyone else?

What does this have to do with secularism, you might ask? Well, as the title suggests, there would have to be changes in our assumptions, especially the Protestant work ethic and all that idea entails – God helps those whose help themselves, those who don’t work don’t eat, etc. Think about what effect that would have on our current assumptions about work, labor, respect, compensation, etc. Both conservatives and liberals tend to think of what we deserve based on our labor. Even as I write this, GOP legislators are hoping to insert a work requirement into ACHA – you wouldn’t be eligible for health insurance without working.

How would these assumptions about contributing to society (the topic of my next post) be turned upside down?  When nobody’s work is needed – and work is no longer a commodity – what then do people deserve?

What would we do with all those unemployed – unemployable – people?

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Why Children Shouldn’t Pray

In American Society, Religion and Education on January 22, 2017 at 12:56 pm

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After many years behind the Great Firewall of China, I’ve finally decided to move elsewhere. It’s been so frustrating to try and get a blog going when everything is blocked! I’m not sure where I’ll land, but at the moment I’m writing from Bangkok, Thailand. I’m re-posting one of the last articles I was able to publish, just to get things rolling again. More to come.

I have dear Christian friends and family members whom I try hard not to offend when I post on social media – the main reason I created the American Secularist Facebook page is so that I could share ideas and posts with like-minded individuals without worry that I’d alienate someone I care about. Since I’m not trying to force my opinions upon anyone, I guess I should expect that there would be quite a few people I’m connected to who may not know that I’ve become one of the ‘unconverted’ over the years, becoming much more comfortable with an agnostic worldview and very uncomfortable with the suggestion that we need more God in our government. That means that most days I’ll see a post somewhere that looks like this one:

Dear Atheist, if you do not believe that God exists, why do you care if I pray to him?

Most of the time, these don’t bother me much – I put them in the same category as those invitations to play Candy Crush or whatever the latest game is. If I start getting a half-dozen a day from the same person, I just ‘hide’ their posts for a few days until they calm down about whatever it is that’s got them wound up. There are probably a couple of people who are so far to the right that I need to block them until election season is over. But basically no harm done as those who agree ‘like’ the post and others can just keep moving down the page.

But this particular one hit a few hot buttons – and I think it requires a response.

Let’s first dispel the common misconception this photo promotes – that it is illegal for anyone to pray in an American school. This is simply untrue, no matter how many preachers or Fox News commentators say otherwise. No one has ever ‘taken prayer out of our schools’ at any time. Students can pray in school whenever they like, so long as such activity isn’t disruptive in nature. Teachers and administrators can pray as well, although it must be clear that they are exercising their personal beliefs and that the school is not endorsing any religion or requiring that anyone participate.

Basically, no teacher or administrator can prohibit a student from the free exercise of his or her beliefs – they just can’t lead students in prayer as was often done in the past. The Lemon Test doesn’t say people can’t pray, it only says that the state should not be promoting prayer. The Supreme Court ruled that school activities – and indeed government activities of any kind – should have a secular purpose.

Don’t forget too that almost everyone in favor of school prayer is in favor of their own particular brand of prayer. I don’t think the people passing this photo around would be happy if everyone got to pray they way they wanted to pray – young Sufis whirling around in circles or Japanese Shintos running through the hallways with huge penises held high in the air.

In fact, the legislation that stopped teacher-led prayer in school didn’t come about because some atheist was annoyed by it – it started because a Jewish man didn’t like seeing his son saying Christian prayers. Going back to the way things were in the 1950s would only re-open the old debates about whether a Catholic or Jew (and we’d have to add Muslim today) should be included in Protestant prayers – or should the prayer be watered down to be so general as to be meaningless. Few are satisfied with universalist prayers.

I think what I find particularly annoying about this photo is that it is presented as an honest question from a child – scrawled innocently on a notepad, out of the mouth of babes, as it were. Finished off with a rather smug-looking smiley face for good measure. Of course, this is a misrepresentation.  It is clearly the opinion of an adult who wants to force kids to pray to his god. He wouldn’t phrase it that way, I’m sure, but that’s what the outcome would be.

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t like to hear children being referred to as “Christian children”, “Jewish children”, or any other religious designation. Children do not choose their religious affiliation. No parent tells a child about Jesus, Mohammed, Rama, and Buddha, then leaves it up to that child to decide which one they want to believe in. Instead, children are indoctrinated. At an age and developmental stage in which fantasy and reality are hard to separate, children are presented only one set of religious myths, told to them as truth.

This is why keeping religion out of the schools is so important. Schools have the huge task of educating our children, dispelling ignorance, and creating and nurturing inquisitive minds. Propping up tired old ideas based on the 2000-year-old writings of mostly unlearned men should not be on the agenda. Teachers who encourage children to ask a magic man in the sky for personal favors instead of showing them the math and science behind how the universe works should not be employed by public schools. Education is about learning that which can be proven.

Why do I care? Even though children are legally allowed to pray in school, I’m not sure that they should. I think it’s dangerous to encourage children to believe in fantasy and fatalism, to teach as real that which has no proof. A lot of what’s wrong in America today is caused by believing there’s something out there that will magically solve all of our ills. God will come back before we destroy ourselves through wars or environmental destruction. Cut taxes for rich people and the economic woes will somehow right themselves. Carpet-bombing and drone attacks are somehow going to reduce terrorism around the world.

Perhaps our children should be learning that only they, themselves, can change the world for the better.  Arguing about which imaginary friend we should be allowed to talk to is a serious waste of time.

Please comment – do you think I’ve gone too far when I say children shouldn’t be taught to pray?

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Secularist Prayer

In American Society, Current events, Secular Humanism on November 21, 2015 at 6:39 pm

 

I’ve felt a heavy sadness this week that I fear is only bound to intensify in the coming weeks. Events in Paris in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks continue to dominate the news cycle. When there is a break in the coverage, it seems it’s only to introduce another tragedy unfolding elsewhere in the world. Syrian refugees are still  washing up to shore, both dead and alive. At least 27 are dead in the Mali massacre. Kidnappings continue in the Philippines. Palestinians and Israelis are still killing each other on a daily basis. 

Closer to my current home in China, Uighyr separatists, unable to procure guns, rampage through train stations, slashing passengers with long knives. Chinese authorities are accused of retaliating indiscriminately, shooting dead anyone even remotely associated with the attacks.

More violence promised by all parties. 

Even if terrorism didn’t exist, we would still have a 24/7 news stream of police violence, child abductions, grisly murders, school shootings, and other mass killings to look forward to. No need to wait for the evening news or even look for a television – headlines are pushed to our phones round the clock. Videos so gruesomely violent they’d make Dante puke appear in our Facebook newsfeed. Anyone trying to change their profile photo to show solidarity with victims of extremism would need to log on hourly. 

It is clear that secularism – a worldview that espouses the furtherance of human welfare through rational solutions – is, if not altogether dead, certainly mortally wounded. Every time a terrorist or religious zealot takes a life, he emboldens others to join the madness, and elicits vows of revenge from those who worship a slightly different god. Even those who might in other times consider themselves moderates are found shouting threats at city hall or proposing internment camps. 

It’s enough to make a secular humanist cry. I’m sitting at an airport in Beijing, waiting to board a plane home for the holidays, yet my heart is heavy. With all the terrible things happening in the world, even the Pope is having a hard time enjoying the season. How can we sing ‘Peace on Earth’ when it seems the world is on fire? What can we do in this time of troubles?

We can pray.

I’ve heard it said that an agnostic is someone who has a nostalgia for God, and I know I am guilty of this sentiment. I’ve explored the topic before, and I’ve decided that it is difficult to escape the old ways of thinking. I’ve been criticized for posting #prayforparis and #prayforsyria on my blog and other sites. So be it. 

However, perhaps I do need to clarify what kind of prayer I’m talking about. It is not the prayer of the zealot – the one who shouts ‘God is Great’ as he guns down the innocent. I do not propose a fatalist’s prayer, the sort of ‘God’s will be done’ sentiment so prevalent in our major religions. I am certainly not in favor of the Samsonite prayer – let me kill all my enemies even if it’s the last thing I do. And I long ago abandoned the wishful prayer, the one that expects a magic man in the sky – so oblivious to our sufferings thus far – to suddenly make everything ok. 

Instead, what I suggest is to keep these events close to our hearts and uppermost in our thoughts. When I say ‘prayers’ for someone,  it means my heart goes out for them, that I want things to work out for them. I can’t look at someone with stage IV cancer who’s asked me to pray for them and say, “I don’t believe in prayer,” even if I don’t in the conventional sense of the word. 

There is enough heartlessness in the world. I know there is no God – because even a fallible human such as I would stop these heinous events if I could – how could a perfect being do otherwise?

Obviously we must do more than pray – we have to punish those who’ve broken the law, root out those who fan the flames of hatred, and – if we can – eliminate the causes of such mindless violence. But while we’re stunned, hurting, at a loss for words let alone solutions – could it hurt to pray?