Kluges, Klans, and Chocolate Kake

8 02 2012

The cover article of the recent issue of Newsweek (13 February 2012) is about the rise of Christophobia, or the systematic and brutal abuse and murder of thousands of Christians in Muslim countries around the world. It’s a disturbing read, and one wonders why we don’t hear more about it in the news. Actually, there’s a reason, as the article points out: the persecution of Muslims by Western countries has led to an oversensitivity on the part of the media to portray Islam as anything but fair-minded and kind. American-Islamic relations are something everyone recognizes as important to uphold.

But the facts remain: behind the curtain of relative media silence, Christians are being persecuted and killed in alarming numbers in Islamic countries. Terrorist attacks on Christians in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia increased, according to the Newsweek article, by 309% from 2003 to 2010. Those stats are sobering by anyone’s standards.

And yet the Church has shown time and time again that the blood of its martyrs is the seed of its growth. Tertullian said as much almost 2,000 years ago, and so it is. The deaths of these believers, if history is right, will only lead to the strengthening of Christian conviction and growth in its numbers. We can, in the meantime, pray for our brothers and sisters who suffer for their beliefs and do what we can to change the situation by writing our elected officials to pressure the governments of countries like Kenya, the Sudan, and Pakistan to commit themselves to the protection of religious minorities. We can also continue to support organizations like World Vision and Amnesty International.

The far more serious attack on Christianity was buried a few pages back in the magazine, however, in a small, two-column piece that read like a cleverly disguised op-ed. The article, “Tripping Through Time: Why has evolution let drugs be fun?” purports to be nothing more than a scientific interest piece on why human beings, despite evolution, continue to do stupid things like take drugs, which we know are killing our brain cells. Fascinating question. Turns out, according to the article’s author Gary Marcus, the “dirty secret” in evolution is that it’s not a perfect process. It’s a random one. Okay… interesting. But then the article takes a sudden, one-sentence detour after making this quasi-confession about evolution’s unreliability. Marcus inexplicably adds that the reason why evolution offers no guarantees is because “there is no intelligent designer overseeing the show.” What? Come again? How did that little zinger just get slipped in there? Isn’t that a bit presumptuous? I mean, I’d be equally surprised to read that the reason evolution is unreliable is because “God chooses not to interfere in natural events.” I would find a sentence like that in Newsweek equally tendentious.

This got me thinking. Is there some silent conspiracy against religious belief infiltrating supposedly objective news media like Newsweek magazine? I’m the last one to think so. I’m a huge fan (and financial supporter) of NPR and think FOX news is a contradiction in terms. I even listen to Pacifica Radio on occasion. And though our local NPR station has shows that are clearly biased against religious belief (like the Pat Morrison show, whose host can’t disguise her teeny-bopper crush on people like Richard Dawkins), I nonetheless expect a magazine like Newsweek to be achingly neutral on matters of religious belief.

So then I went looking for the masthead to see whose in charge over at Newsweek. Couldn’t find it (it doesn’t exist!). That’s odd, I thought to myself. So who’s running this ship anyway? I turned to the Editor-in-Chief’s column. Surprise! It’s Tina Brown, that micro-managing magazine magnate whose singular contribution to print media is the dumbing down of content in favor of the glossing up of its advertisements. She almost single-handedly drove The New Yorker into print oblivion by insisting that it get hipper (by whose standards? Brittany Spears?). So that answered one question.

But since I was already in decipher mode and the hunt was hot, I thought I’d do a little sniffing around to see who this Gary Marcus guy was (who wrote the article). Surprise #2! Turns out, he’s a disciple (aka “former grad student”) of none other than Steven Pinker, that all-things-to-all-atheists cognitive psychologist who has never met a religious debate he didn’t like. I felt like Sherlock Holmes. No wonder that disingenuous sentence was added right in the middle of what was an otherwise fascinating article. It had the marks of Steven Pinker written all over it.

But that was only half the problem. The other half had to do with the article itself and its little zinger. The whole point of it seemed circular. If, as the article (op-ed) suggested, we still do stupid things that bring harm to ourselves because of an “imperfect compromise” between two systems at work in each of us — the old (reflexive) system that is wired for fight-or-flight and the new (reflective) system that deliberates more carefully — then how do you explain that the lower forms of life, presumably far more reflexive than we, have been around so much longer? Better yet, if our reflexive systems are what allowed us to survive in the first place (and those without it perished, as the article states), why would it be phased out for a newer system? I mean, if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? Or maybe adding our deliberative system simply made us better, but then that begs the opposite question: if our deliberative system was an improvement, doesn’t that imply that snap judgments (caused by our reflexive systems) could be just as harmful as they are helpful? “Ooohh, look at that mushroom! Yummy!” or “Hey, that pissed me off. BANG!”

According to Marcus, engineers call the clumsy and inelegant process of imperfect solutions “kluges,” and evolution suffers from some pretty major ones in its compromise between both systems (reflexive and reflective), which apparently explains why we take drugs even when we know they’re bad, because drugs cause addictions, which amp up our reflexive tendencies. But how does it explain why Muslims, for example, would systematically target and kill Christians (a reflective/deliberative instinct if there ever was one) without provocation? That’s a pretty big kluge if you ask me. “BANG! Oops, I’m sorry. I meant to do that.” Or why do groups like the KKK insist, in a very cool and deliberative logic, to do away with all ethnic minorities?

Turns out, Christians have had a name for kluges for millennia. We call it “sin,” that pre-historic instinct that prizes efficacy over morality, self-preservation over compassion, the immediate result over the long-term gain. Yes, it affects not only our self-control when it comes to chocolate cake (the example the article used), but our deliberations when it comes to who we should kill and why. Either way, admitting that evolution is not perfect is simply another scientific capitulation to the obvious: we haven’t evolved morally or ethically to any reasonable degree since pretty much our inception. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? I mean, that’s quite the kluge.

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