Tom McLaughlin

A former history teacher, Tom is a columnist who lives in Lovell, Maine. His column is published in Maine and New Hampshire newspapers and on numerous web sites. Email: tomthemick@gmail.com

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

To Die For

“What does it all mean?” theists ask. Pure scientists believe the question irrelevant. Theism professes one God created the universe, intervenes in it, and sustains a personal relationship with humanity. Science doesn’t look for meaning. Meaning is irrelevant. Unless one embraces religion, nihilism is the default position. Meaningful or meaningless? Western culture is in conflict, and in the early 21st century, nihilism prevails. As I contended in last week’s column, many see the west as post-Christian and maybe they’re right.
Whenever a new principal came along, I’d get a visit. He/she would ask me about my “Beginnings” unit in which I outlined different explanations about the origin of the universe and  of humanity, comparing and contrasting the fading creation narrative and the prevailing big bang/evolution account. It was controversial, they said, and they asked me to drop it. I pointed to the Scopes Monkey Trial covered in the text, and that teaching about evolution was as controversial during the early years of the 20th century as teaching about creation had become in the later years. As the K-12 curriculum in our district existed then, only in a high school elective were some taught the Big Bang Theory. Only in Sunday school were some taught the creation story. Near the end of my career I had some students had never heard of Adam and Eve, for example.
The way Americans understood their origins affected how they perceived other issues, I argued. One principal told me he got flak from both sides: Progressives claimed I taught creation. Jehovah Witnesses complained I taught evolution. I didn’t teach either. I taught about both, and encouraged students to take a position. Some years we conducted formal debates. Students asked me throughout what my position was but I’d demur until the end. Then I’d tell them mine is the Catholic position under which the creation and Big Bang/evolution accounts are not mutually exclusive, but complementary.
Each principal relented and I went on with my Beginnings unit — until September 11, 2001. As part of a current events lesson, I was writing the word “jihad” on the board, explaining to students why Palestinian Muslim suicide bombers were blowing themselves up to kill Jews in Israel when Principal Joe Soraghan knocked on my door. It was about 9:15 am and he motioned for me to step into the hallway. Two planes had hit the World Trade Center, he told me, and that changed everything. Jihad had come to America.
Each September for the next eight years, I’d start with a unit on why we were at war — why radical Muslims wanted to kill American Jews, Christians and atheists. Instead of comparing and contrasting creation and evolution, we instead compared and contrasted Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — in that order, because that’s the order in which each was established — approximately 2500 BC, 1 AD, and 600 AD, respectively. All three share the same creation story. Abraham is a patriarch in all three as well. Christians believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but neither Jews nor Muslims do — and so on. We were at war because Muhammed instructed Muslims to convert the world to Islam — by the sword if necessary. That they did until early in the 20th century, and many were resuming in the 21st — and that’s why we were at war. It was the end of one controversial unit and the beginning of another.
Jews established the State of Israel after the Holocaust — which has ultimate meaning for them, and they’re willing to die for it. Radical Muslims deny the Holocaust and vow to wipe Israel, which they call “The Little Satan,” off the map — then destroy America, which they call “The Great Satan.” Those goals are meaningful enough that they’re willing to kill and die for them.
When Martin Luther Day came around in January, I’d quote what he said in a 1963 speech

“I submit to you that if a man hasn't discovered something he will die for, he isn't fit to live.” 
Then I’d ask each of my four classes if there were anything they would die for. Only about ten to twenty percent could think of anything. When I asked those few, they said they were willing to die for their families. One said he would die for his cat. Most couldn’t think of anything at all. Are they representative of the rest of America? How many of us have discovered something meaningful enough to die for in this age of existential nihilism? 
Existential nihilism (Wikipedia): “the philosophical theory that life has no intrinsic meaning or value. With respect to the universe, existential nihilism posits that a single human or even the entire human species is insignificant, without purpose and unlikely to change in the totality of existence.”

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23 Comments:

OpenID bc64a9f8-765e-11e3-8683-000bcdcb2996 said...

Something I'm willing to die, before "my time", for? NO
Something I'm willing to risk death for? Perhaps
I take comfort that others are willing to die in the voluntary pursuit of killing, or enslaving me though. It makes their existence meaningless to me.
"No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making some other poor dumb bastard die for his country." Geo. Patton
CaptDMO

10/11/16, 2:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I pointed to the Scopes Monkey Trial covered in the text, and that teaching about evolution was as controversial during the early years of the 20th century as teaching about creation had become in the later years."

So why not also point out that at one time teaching that the earth was round was also controversial and that you should also be teaching the old theory that the earth is flat?

10/11/16, 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Bruce said...

I think to be fair, along with your Quran quote about killing non-believers, you should have included one of the many bible passages that preaches the same:

Luke 19:27:
But those mine enemies, which would not that I should reign over them, bring hither, and slay them before me.

Or

Or Deuteronomy 13:
If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, 7 gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), 8 do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. 9 You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. 10 Stone them to death, because they tried to turn you away from the Lord your God..

10/11/16, 3:54 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

I would consider myself an atheist, but I will not rule out the possibility that there is some sort of intelligent design at play. I tend to think not, but who really knows? If there is, I do not believe that it has anything to do with any organized religion.

But I would not say that life has no meaning. A meaningful life is one lived according to virtue and goodness.
A meaningful life is one in which happiness is brought to others as well as yourself. So, if virtue exists, life can be meaningful, even for an atheist. No matter how insignificant we may be in this infinite universe, life still has great value to me. In spite of some teenagers not coming up with something to die for, I think that true nihilists are all too rare. Which might be a shame because nihilists, along with atheists and agnostics, have sure caused a lot less war, destruction and killing than has been caused in the name of religion.

10/11/16, 4:24 PM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

Peter writes: "Which might be a shame because nihilists, along with atheists and agnostics, have sure caused a lot less war, destruction and killing than has been caused in the name of religion."

You have overlooked atheist communists in the Soviet Union, responsible for the deaths of up to 60 million people during the Stalin regime. Then there's Mao's China during which many tens of millions died. Some researchers estimate up to 80 million. Then there's Pol Pot's what? 3-4 million dead?

Perhaps you should re-think that Peter.

10/11/16, 6:05 PM  
Blogger Peter said...

It seems to me that the deaths you mention under Stalin and Mao and the rest, were government led movements, dictators striving for more power for the sake of power, not for the honor of "The Godless" or any religion vs non-religion reasons. Whether or not one believed in god, or what god, had little or no importance in their atrocities. They weren't out slaughtering, as in the crusades, because someone believed differently about their god. They were out slaughtering for riches and power, two of the three most fought over things in human history. Religion being the other. Are you going to argue that is not true? As a history teacher, I am sure you do not need to be told that communism and atheism are not the same. And I am sure you have heard the Hitler quote:

“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian...."

So maybe we shouldn't wade into these murky waters, but stick to what is absolutely clear. Millions and millions were murdered specifically under the name of christianity ...such as the crusades. And what needs to be said about Islamist Jihads? The Inquisition? The KKK? (ok, maybe they would have been racist bastards even without the bible egging them on....same for the Native American genocide) and the Armenian genocide, The 30 years war, etc

And what wars and genocides can you specifically blame atheism for?

10/11/16, 10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People throughout history have been martyred and sacrificed in the name of religion, and holy wars have been fought over the tenets of those religions.

The same cannot be said of atheism for the simple fact that atheism is not a religion. Atheism is a lack of belief in deities. It has no governing dogmatic principles, no rule book and no core ideology. Comparing atheism to religion is like comparing apples and oranges. It’s more helpful to compare atheism to theism, which is simply belief in a deity. While some theists also hold fundamentalist beliefs, just believing that some god exists is not enough to cause wars and violence based on the belief alone. How many wars have been caused by deism? You’d need some additional dogmatic beliefs in order for that happen. 


Religions like Christianity and Islam provide such dogma, creating convenient excuses. Secular totalitarian regimes anmd religion share this dogmatic element: a belief that a set of ideas are true because an authority figure says so and that questioning those ideas can lead to serious or even deadly consequences.


Therefore, it’s not reasonable to say that atheism condones or promotes violence or that tyrants have killed in the name of atheism. Such actions or any other action, both good and bad, do not and cannot speak for atheism in general, as no two atheists necessarily hold any of the same beliefs or convictions about the world. The only thing held in common between all atheists is a lack of belief in deities.

This means that some atheists are undoubtedly unkind, aggressive and violent. It also means that some atheists are kind, friendly and peaceful. Any type of person can be an atheist, just as any type of person can be not interested in golf. Just because some non-golfers are jerks doesn’t make not golfing bad any more than atheism can be blamed for the behavior of a handful of atheists. And not all religious people are bad or cruel individuals, yet the practice of violence and war is deeply imbedded in many religious ideologies, and it is a fact that wars and genocides have resulted because of religion.

10/12/16, 6:29 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Business Insider

Teaching creationism in a public school — in a non-religious studies setting — may not only contribute to the spread of scientifically unproven information, but it may also hurt the students themselves ...teaching creationist ideas confuses what constitutes science and what does not. It compromises the objectives of public education and the goal of a high-quality science education."

http://www.businessinsider.com/some-teachers-are-still-trying-to-push-creationism-in-public-schools-2013-8

10/12/16, 7:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Other than some fundamentalists no one believes that stories like Adam and Eve or Noah's Ark are true stories. Most people believe that they are essentially fairy tales designed to teach a lesson. They are similar to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or The Boy Who Cried Wolf. There is nothing unethical about using parables. Jesus uses them all the time.

The difference is that no one is demanding that people be allowed to teach Snow White in a science class as fact.

There is nothing wrong with Adam and Eve in a high school English class if it is useful to properly understand the reference in a book. Some religion may also be appropriate in a history class. But fairy tales have no place in a science class.

Science demands proof. The problem with some science is that while there is mountains of proof, you need to have a certain amount of scientific knowledge to understand the proof. If there is a concept taught in second grade math that can only be proven with calculus is it okay for the teacher to say that 2 + 2 may or may not equal 4 because some obscure verse in the bible implies that it actually adds up to 5?

Stories like Adam and Eve are religious beliefs that you just have to accept without any proof what so ever. Teaching science and superstition as equally valid is doing a big disservice to children. Teaching children that if you really really believe in something, the belief itself makes it true is very very dangerous. Teaching religion in place of science tells students that there are no objective facts. The truth is what you believe it is and there is no need to require any proof. This has real world consequences. The war in Iraq was fought because the President and his advisers really, really believed that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. They ignored their own and other countries intelligence agencies findings that there were no weapons of mass destruction there. They had faith. They didn't need evidence.

10/12/16, 2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The author of this post says that he taught Adam and Eve in a public classroom. Did he know that this is illegal? Teaching religion in a public school is unconstitutional. This isn't a recent thing, it was decided in by the John Jay supreme court in the early 1800's.

If he truly wants to let the children decide, what does he feel about other traditional ideas vs current?

The ancient elements, Earth, Fire, Air and Water vs the modern idea of atoms and energy etc.

The idea that mental illness is a disease vs that it is caused my demonic possession.

What about the thousands of other creation myths by thousands of different religions around the Earth. My town has a lot of Hmong people. Should we find what the religion/religions of the Hmong people say about the creation of the universe and teach it side by side the Christian and scientific belief's as if legend was fact.

I think this is one of the main reasons that religious conservatives don't like immigration. Immigration allows people with different beliefs into the country. Many Christians have so little faith in their God that they want to force the government to enforce their belief's on the newcomers and are very frustrated that the illegal tactics they used to use like burning the house of non believers down isn't socially acceptable anymore.

10/12/16, 7:26 PM  
Blogger Tom McLaughlin said...

Wikileaks is giving us a window into "progressive" nihilist worldview so prevalent in the Clinton campaign. Clearly, they view us Catholics and other conservative Christians as morons. They're right about Catholics comprising the bulk of today's conservatives. Lots of us at CPAC, and William F. Buckley was Catholic of course.

So far there's no substantive response from the Clinton campaign. "It's the Russians!" is all they can say.

10/13/16, 8:54 AM  
Blogger Peter said...

I don't think rationally minded science believing people think religious people are "morons", they just think they are gullible and susceptible people who are somehow comforted by old stories. It seems more silly than moronic. But I can respect their beliefs as long as they don't try and force them on others, in school or elsewhere.

And I see you have given up on the argument about nihilism or atheism causing wars and genocides and also have no counter points to the matter of teaching religion in public schools.

10/13/16, 11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Certainly Trump can't be upset about insulting Catholics, being someone who called the Pope disgraceful. It is also Trump that wants to tread all over our countries religious freedoms with his proposed Muslim ban.

10/13/16, 12:57 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

FAR more important than some condescending statements about catholics is the possibility (which evidence seems to indicate) that Russia may be illegally trying to influence our election. Pretty scary and serious stuff. It seems you may be just downplaying the significance because of who got hacked and what was leaked out.

10/13/16, 1:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having something to die for is obviously not always a good thing. Look no further than jihadists for proof.

As for Russia, wow, now they have come right out and threatened war if Hillary is elected. Very curious what is going on secretly with Trump and the Soviets. I guess authoritarian types (like Lepage likes) tend to stick up for each other (ala Hitler and Mussolini)

10/13/16, 5:54 PM  
Anonymous Bruce said...

So far there's no substantive response from the McLaughlin campaign about the countless times his thinking has been questioned. "It's the godless liberals!" is all he can say.

10/13/16, 9:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that Liberals think that conservatives are morons. I think that Liberals think that some conservatives are willfully ignorant.

Some conservatives say that cutting taxes will increase government revenues. Experience shows that cutting taxes reduces government revenues except in very rare specific situations. Look at the financial situation in Kansas. The state is close to bankrupt and the party just keeps saying if we cut taxes just a little more and we'll be drowning in money.

Some conservatives have an ongoing war against science. There are many scientific ideas that are so well proven that if you printed out all of the evidence supporting it the pile of paper would reach to the moon. These conservatives pick out some minor discrepancy to try to convince people that science is just another word for a wild guess.

Many far right conservatives really have no idea what the concept of evidence is. Many are clearly authoritarians who once they pick their leader will follow them blindly whether or not the leader makes any sense. To authoritarians, the only evidence that has any meaning at all is what their chosen leader says.

I'm not sure why the Liberals are nihilists when the Conservatives only concern is getting elected and have absolutely no concern about actually governing.

10/13/16, 10:17 PM  
Blogger CJ Johnson said...

May God Bless You and your family, Tom.
Sadly, most of the opposing commenters simply don't possess critical thinking.
This is understandable, as it has not been taught in the formative days of Grade School since the middle of last century. Equally sad is that fact the NEA has been so successful in creating the mindset that the State is more important than the Individual.
Freedom gives one the Freedom to destroy Freedom.
Thank you for shining a light in the darkness.
cj

10/14/16, 8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What I find funny about the last post is that the State of Texas Republican Parties official platform for 2012 demanded that public schools in Texas stop teaching their students critical thinking skills. Texas is important because they are the largest buyer of textbooks in the United States.

In order for society to succeed you need both the state and the individual. If individuals have total control, rich and powerful individuals will ride over the average individuals. I am a liberal and I believe that there is a need for laws that are followed by everyone.

In many ways I do believe that the state is more important than the individual. If one individual wants to damn a river for their convenience but this will flood out the homes of hundreds of other peoples homes, I put the needs of hundreds of people over the needs of one person. If the needs of every individual was more important than the needs of society as a whole you would have chaos.

I am somewhat surprised that no conservatives moved to Somalia during the troubles there. It fits perfectly with modern conservative ideals. No government. Absolute individual freedom. No taxes. No regulations.

Where did all of the Conservatives of my childhood go? I was born in the early 1960's and almost all of the conservative people of that era would be considered radical liberals by conservatives today.

10/14/16, 12:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another question about the rights of the individual over the rights of the state.

The state decides who can get married. Two individual same sex partners sued the state of Mass for the right to get married. A clear case of the rights of two individuals to get married over the states desire to stop them from getting married.

The Mass Supreme Court gave anyone the right to file briefs for and against the idea of same sex marriage. This lasted for 6 months. There were hundreds of briefs filed in favor and less than ten filed against the concept of same sex marriage. The opponents of same sex marriage had six months to find a valid legal reason that used critical thinking skills to oppose same sex marriage and were unable to find a single valid legal argument against it.

Do conservatives now support the individuals rights to marry who they chose to marry or the states rights to prevent them from marrying even though there is no valid legal reason to do so? This is a clear cut case of the rights of the individual vs the rights of the state.

10/14/16, 12:52 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

A comment for CJ Johnson:

How easy it is to claim others are lacking critical thinking skills while giving absolutely no examples of them doing so!

The following is from "Scientific American"

How Critical Thinkers Lose Their Faith in God
Religious belief drops when analytical thinking rises

Why are some people more religious than others? Answers to this question often focus on the role of culture or upbringing. While these influences are important, new research suggests that whether we believe may also have to do with how much we rely on intuition versus analytical thinking. In 2011 Amitai Shenhav, David Rand and Joshua Greene of Harvard University published a paper showing that people who have a tendency to rely on their intuition are more likely to believe in God.

For the full column:

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-critical-thinkers-lose-faith-god/

So it seems that it may be CJ and Tom who are lacking these critical thinking skills and relying on gut intuition. For example, "I am experiencing a warmish day in January so Global Warming must be a hoax".

10/14/16, 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Alex said...

Bill Clinton cheats on his wife. Impeach him. Trump proudly brags about sexual assault (and has cheated on his wives). Elect him. Hillary oversaw the department of state while 4 people died in an embassy attack. Put her in jail. 2 Republicans were in office while over 200 people died in embassy attacks. No problem. Immigrants don't pay taxes. Round them up and kick them out. Trump doesn't pay taxes. He's a business genius. Hillary's foundation only spent 87% of their donations helping people. She's a crook. Trumps foundation paid off his debts, bought sculptures of him, and made political donations to avoid investigations while using less than 5% of funds for charity (and he got shut down by NY State). So savvy... Put him in the white house. Trump made 4 billion dollars in 40 years, when an index fund started at the same time with the same "small loans" he received would be worth $12 billion today... without a trail of bankruptcies, thousands of lawsuits and burned small business owners. He's a real business whiz. Hillary took a loss of $700k. She's a criminal. Trump is the first candidate in the modern era not to release his tax returns, and took a billion dollar loss in 1 year. Genius. Hillary takes responsibility for private email servers and apologizes. Not credible. Trump denies saying things (on the record) he actually said (on the record), he's just telling it like it is.

Your arguments are thin. Your ignorance of reality is shocking. Your double-standards are offensive, and your willingness to blindly support him and recycle the rhetoric is absurd. Your opinion is not fact. Your memes are not news articles. And your hypocrisy is not a platform.

10/14/16, 9:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your perspective on the Israel/Palestine situation is skewed by your (version of) Christian beliefs. The Jews were displaced after the Jewish Roman Wars and haven't lived in the area in any significant numbers pretty much until the Zionist movement and the creation of the state of Israel. That's almost 2000 years. That land was Muslim for the most recent several hundred years. Muslim Arabs were displaced to create Israel. And now we have essentially a land dispute. It is perfectly understandably for the Palestinians to fight back against the Israelis as invaders (and then the Israelis fight back against the Palestinians in an endless cycle of violence.)
Your hatred of Iran is also based on this. Iran backs the Palestinians, while the US backs the Israelis, mainly because of the influential Jewish lobby and the Christian Right.
Your hatred of Islam in general is problematic. Islam has over a 1.6 billion followers in
many countries. There is a diverse range of belief. Only a subset is fundamentalists prone to terrorism. (And the US is close allies with Saudi Arabia, the main exporter of fundamentalist belief, because of oil.)
If there is a God, he is surely God of us all.

10/18/16, 10:06 PM  

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