A Visit from St. Nicholas
One of the challenges presented by the ever-growing human population is producing enough food to feed everyone. There is also the distribution challenge: being able to get the food to the people and ensuring that they can afford a good diet.
The population growth is also accompanied by an increase in prosperity—at least in some parts of the world. As people gain income, they tend to change their diet. One change that people commonly undertake is consuming more status foods, such as beef. As such, it seems almost certain that there will be an ever-growing population that wants to consume more beef. This creates something of a problem.
Beef is, of course, delicious. While I am well aware of the moral issues surrounding the consumption of meat, at the end of each semester I reward myself with a Publix roast beef sub—with everything. Like most Americans, I am rather fond of beef and my absolute favorite meal is veal parmesan. However, I have not had veal since my freshman year of college: thanks to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation I learned the horrific price of veal and could not, in good conscience, eat it anymore. The argument is the stock utilitarian one: the enjoyment I would get from veal is vastly exceeded by the suffering of the animal. This makes the consumption of veal wrong. Naturally, I have given similar consideration to beef.
In the case of American cattle, the moral argument I accept in regards to veal fails: in general, American beef growers treat their cattle reasonably well right up until the moment of slaughter. Obviously, there are still cases of cattle being mistreated and that does provide some ammunition for the suffering argument. If I knew that my roast beef sandwich included the remains of a cow that suffered, then I would have to accept that I should give up roast beef as well. I am completely open to that sort of argument.
But, suppose that it is assumed that beef will be created humanely and that the cattle will have a life as good (or better) than they would have in the wild. At least up until the end. This still leaves open some moral concerns about beef.
Sticking with the utilitarian focus, there are two main concerns here. The first is the cost in resources of producing beef relative to other foods. The second is the environmental cost of beef.
Creating 1,000 calories of beef requires 1,557 square feet of land (this includes the pasture and cropland required). In contrast, the same number of calories in chicken requires 44 square feet. For pork it is 57 square feet. Interestingly, dairy production of that number of calories requires only 94 square feet. As such, even if it is assumed that eating meat is morally fine, there is the concern that the land requirements for beef make it an impractical food. There is also the moral concern that land should be used more effectively, at least as long as there is not enough food for everyone.
One counter is that the reason chicken and pork requires less land is that these animals are infamously confined to very small areas. As such, they gain their efficiency by paying a moral price: the animals are treated worse. Obviously those who do not weigh the moral concerns about animals heavily (or at all) will not find this matter to be a problem and they could argue that if cattle were “factory farmed” more efficiently, then beef would cost vastly less.
In addition to the cost in land usage, cattle also need food and water. It takes 36,200 calories of feed and 434 gallons of water to produce 1,000 calories of beef. Not surprisingly, other animals are more efficient. The same calories in chicken requires 8,800 calories of feed and 38 gallons on water. From an efficiency standpoint, it would make more sense for humans to consume the feed crops (typically corn) directly rather than use them to produce animals. Adding in concerns about water, decreasing meat production would seem to be a good idea—at least if the goal is to efficiently feed people.
It can be countered that we will find more efficient ways to feed people—another food revolution to prevent the dire predictions of folks like Malthus from coming to pass. This is, of course, a possibility. However, the earth obviously does have limits—the question is whether these limits will be enough for our population.
It can also be countered that the increasing prosperity will reduce populations. So, while there will be more people eating meat, there will be less people. This is certainly possible: if the usual pattern of increased prosperity leading to smaller families comes to pass, then there might be a reduction in the human population. Provided that the “slack” is taken up elsewhere.
A final point of concern is the environmental impact of beef. There are the usual environmental issues associated with such agriculture, such as contamination of water. There is also the concern about methane and carbon dioxide production. A thousand calories of beef generates 9.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide, while a comparable amount of chicken generates 1.9 kilograms. Since methane and carbon dioxide are greenhouse gases, those who believe that these gases can influence the climate will find this to be of concern. Those who believe that these gases do not influence the climate will not be concerned about this, in the same manner that people who believe that smoking does not increase their risk of cancer will not be worried about smoking. Speaking of health risks, it is also claimed that beef presents various dangers, such as an increased chance of getting certain cancers.
Overall, if we cannot produce enough food for everyone while producing beef, we should reduce our beef production. While I am reluctant to give up my roast beef, I would do so if it meant that others could eat. But, of course, if it can be shown that beef production and consumption is morally fine and that it has no meaningful impact on people not having enough quality food, then beef would be just fine. Deliciously fine.
Like many Americans, I grew up with many Christmas traditions: the tree, the Advent calender, decorations, and candy canes. While I am not particularly religious, these traditions still hold great meaning to me and I still think back fondly to Christmases past. However, there is a Christmas tradition I am not fond of. This is, not surprisingly, the yearly claim that there is a War on Christmas.
Listening to certain pundits, who are mainly denizens of Fox news, one would get the impression that those that celebrate Christmas have been forced to hide in ancient catacombs under the shopping malls to avoid being thrown into the arena where they would be cuddled by liberal, vegetarian lions of ambiguous gender.
On the face of it, to claim that there is a war on Christmas in America would seem to be prima facie evidence that a person is either joking, epistemically damaged or insane. After all, Christmas trees are displayed openly. People boldly wish others a merry Christmas and are not arrested. Christmas stockings are still hung from the chimney with care, rather than being hidden away in some secret corner. You can test this yourself: boldly go to a store that sells cards and ask for Christmas cards. Approach a police officer and ask her if you can report people for celebrating Christmas. Go to the mall and loudly proclaim that you are there to buy Christmas presents. Decorate your yard and your house for Christmas. Eat a candy cane in public. Then report in the comment section what happened.
The fact that Christianity does not get to be the official religion is not proof that there is a war on Christmas. The fact that non-Christians are not compelled to engage in Christmas activities is not proof there is a war on Christmas. The fact that religious tolerance and diversity is respected is not evidence there is a war on Christmas. The fact that some people do some ridiculous things regarding Christmas does not show that there is a war on Christmas.
As happens every year, the folks who (pretend to) believe in a war on Christmas point to problems involving Nativity scenes on state property. As I have written before, I rather like Nativity scenes: When I see one, however tacky it might be (one had flamingos lined up to adore the baby Jesus) I will pause and look at it, remembering days gone by. As such, I have nothing against Nativity scenes. However, I do agree that religious displays should not occur on state property.
Not having religious displays on state property (that is, the property of all the citizens) is not a war on Christmas. After all, not having the state actively endorse a specific faith is not an attack on that faith. If the state burned Nativity scenes as part of a public display, then that would be a war. Having a general ban on religious displays is not a war on religion but rather a refusal to exalt one faith above any others. That is an important part of allowing freedom of (and from) religion.
It is also important to note that manger scenes are not banned from anywhere else. If you want to turn your entire lawn into just such a scene, then you are free to do so. If your church wants to put up a massive manger extravaganza, they are free to do just that. And some do. If it is nearby, I will go see it. Even if it includes flamingos. Actually, especially if it includes flamingos.
Defenders in the imaginary war on Christmas also point to the use of “happy holidays” as a sign that Christmas is under attack. The obvious reply is that this is actually a holiday season. While Hanukkah is over, there are still holidays left such as Three King’s Day and New Year’s. The other obvious reply is that wishing people happy holidays when one does not know their faith (or lack thereof) is a sign of respect and inclusiveness.
I have no objection to someone wishing me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah-I usually assume that the person is expressing good will towards me. I’m especially fine with it when the person is giving me a gift at the same time. But, honesty compels me to say that Christmas gifts generally put Hanukkah gifts to shame-not that I did not appreciate the dreidel and chocolate coins, Dave.
That said, I can see how people who are not Christians might find being relentlessly wished a Merry Christmas a bit off putting, especially if it is not done with the spirit of the season but issued as a challenge of faith. Fortunately, that does not happen all that often.
It has also been pointed out repeatedly that schools now have winter breaks rather than Christmas break. I do admit that even now it still sounds odd to be on winter break. I still use the term Christmas break because old habits die hard and, for me, I am on Christmas break. However, not everyone who attends state universities is a Christian and state universities are not supposed to endorse any specific faith (private religious schools are another matter). This is, however, not an attack on Christmas anymore than not calling it Kwanzaa break is an assault on Kwanzaa.
The self-styled protectors of Christmas also lament that Christ has been taken out of Christmas. However, it is not clear just how much Christ has been a part of Christmas. Much of the Christmas mythology and trappings are pagan in origin. Also, when you throw in the gross commercialization of the holiday, that would seem to have done a great deal to take the Christ out of Christmas.
While I would really like an Xbox One for Christmas, I’d also like the pundits to stop making up this war on Christmas. While it no doubt appeals to the base and creates that warm feeling of righteous indignation in some, it is completely contrary to the spirit of Christmas, namely peace on earth and goodwill to all. Ironically, it is the pundits that are waging a campaign against Christmas. So, ironically, I suppose they are right after all.
As a final point, if there is a war on Christmas, this is a war Christmas wins every year. Merry Christmas.
I’m currently reading Candida Moss’ The Myth of Persecution, which will be available March 5th. I’ll be posting a review of the book on March 6th. This book has, not surprisingly, got me thinking once more about the idea that Christians are persecuted in America.
I invite the readers of this blog to present their answers to the following questions:
- What is persecution (in this context)?
- Are Christians persecuted in America?
- What evidence is there for your view?
Naturally, I’ll present my views on this matter.
Persecution, in this context, would involve the widespread, active, systematic and persistent mistreat of Christians merely because they are Christians. Persecution, by its very nature, seems to require that the persecuted be victims of a more powerful group or groups.
Given this general definition, it would seem clear that Christians are not persecuted in the United States. While Christian groups might not always get what they want (such as a ban on same-sex marriages), this hardly counts as persecution.
In terms of the alleged evidence for persecution, proponents of this view claim that Christians are denied the right to pray, that states forbid the display of Christian symbols on state property (like the nativity scene), that there is a war on Christmas and so on. However, these claims are often unfounded (such as is the case with the alleged war on Christmas) or exaggerated. In any case, this is a factual matter and can be settled by empirical research.
In terms of the evidence against persecution, the majority of Americans claim to be Christians and the nation that is awash in churches. If Christians were persecuted it would seem odd that so many people would profess to a persecuted faith. Even more strange would be the claim that a minority of non-Christians would be able to persecute all the Christians. Of course, it is not impossible. After all, South Africa’s majority black population was cruelly oppressed by the minority white population. However, we do not see a powerless Christian majority in America that is being subdued by a powerful minority of non-Christians. Powerful and influential leaders, from the President on down, claim to be Christians. Churches with great wealth and influence abound. Christian business people, academics, scientists, lawyers, police, soldiers and other professionals abound. It is especially odd to see powerful Republican politicians and pundits speak of being persecuted for being Christians, given the fact that they are powerful and influential and thus exactly the sort of people who are not being persecuted. If all these Christians are being persecuted, they do not seem to show signs of this persecution and to allow it to happen in the face of their power, influence and wealth would show an amazing ineptitude on their part. There is also the obvious question of the identity of the persecutors. That is, who has the power to persecute the Christian majority of the United States? No one, it surely seems.
As such, there seems to be no evidence of widespread, active, systematic and persistent mistreatment of Christians in the United States. The fact is that Christianity is the dominant faith. There is also no war on Christmas.
This is not to say that some Christians do not feel persecuted. However, this often seems to be caused by a distorted perception of reality (like the war on Christmas) or by the belief that a failure to get what they want (such as prayer in schools) is a form of persecution. That is, they are mistaking frustration for persecution.
There are, of course, places in the world were Christians really are persecuted. However these places do not include the United States.
Like most people, I accumulate stuff that I no longer want or need and I like to get rid of it. I also like Christmas gift giving. As an experienced game master, I also really enjoy tormenting others (in the context of the game, of course). Back in 2010 I combined all of these into the much dreaded King Bob’s Game-an event my gaming group has learned to fear and loath.
The theological basis for the game was inspired by the Three King’s Day celebration in Puerto Rico. This is a very pleasant, but very hot, place to visit and I certainly recommend going there. The Spanish fortifications in San Juan alone are worth the trip.
As the story goes, three wise men or kings (not the same thing at all, of course) brought the baby Jesus some gifts. While this served as the theological foundation for the massive commercialization of Christmas, it also gave rise to Three Kings Day, which is celebrated in Puerto Rico. The gist of the holiday is that children put out grass and water for the Kings’ camels and they get small gifts in return. This holiday is on January 6th.
Fortunately, a little research revealed that there was a 4th king, King Bob. Unlike the Three Kings, Bob was not great with directions and ended up arriving at the wrong city, albeit a few days before the other kings arrived in the proper destination.
Since King Bob could not find the baby Jesus, he decided to give away the gifts via a game, which is now known as King Bob’s game. Alternatively, it can be called The Game of the Fourth King.
Here is how the game is played.
What You Will Need
Gifts: At least 1 wrapped gift per player, preferably more. Cheap gifts are best.
Dice: Ideally you should have a D20 and some D6s, but for non gamers six sided dice will do.
There are two roles in the game: King Bob’s stand in and player. King Bob supervises the game but does not play. He also does not get any gifts. Optionally, King Bob can also play and get gifts, but that is bad theology.
Everyone other than King Bob’s stand in is a player.
Setting Up the Game
King Bob sets up the game by creating a pile of the wrapped gifts and defending them from the greasy hands of the players until the game starts. Each player should have a die (or dice) and a board or piece of paper is needed to keep track of the order of play.
Gamers will be familiar with this, but non-gamers will not. For the non-gamers, this is how you determine the order in which the players take their turns. To determine this, each player rolls a die (preferably the standard D20). The player with the highest roll goes first, the player with the second highest goes second and so on. In the case of a tie, reroll until it is settled.
Starting the Game
The game starts with the player who has the highest initiative. S/he selects one gift from the pile and DOES NOTopen it. Shaking and such is allowed. The second player then has his/her turn and so on for each player until it is back to the first player. After the first player has selected his gift, the other players will have more options and the first player will also have these options on his/her second turn.
Playing the Game
After the first player has a gift, the second player has his turn and so on until everyone has had a turn. The first player then has his second turn and so on. During play, a player has options. Only ONE option may be taken each turn. A player can take a different option each turn, but is not required to do so.
- Pick a Gift: the player selects a gift from the pile but DOES NOT open it. The next player then takes his/her turn.
- Open a Gift: the player opens one gift that s/he has in his/her possession and opens it. The next player then takes his/her turn.
- Steal a Gift: the player attempts to take a gift from another player. The player who is trying to steal the gift is the thief and the player who has the gift is the defender. The defender has the option of allowing the theft or resisting. If the defender allows the theft, the thief gets the gift and adds it to his/her collection. If the defender decides to resist, then the thief and the defender each roll a six sided die. If the defender matches or exceeds the thief’s roll, then s/he keeps the gift. If not, the thief adds the gift to his/her collection. The next player then takes his/her turn. Defender does not count as the defending player’s turn and s/he can defend as often as needed.
- Inflict a Gift: the player attempts to give a gift to another player. The player who is trying to give the gift is the giver and the player who has the gift is the defender. The defender has the option of allowing the giving or resisting. If the defender allows the giving, the defender gets the gift and adds it to his/her collection. If the defender decides to resist, then the giver and the defender each roll a six sided die. If the defender matches or exceeds the giver’s roll, then the gift remains with the giver. If not, the defender adds the gift to his/her collection. The next player then takes his/her turn. Defender does not count as the defending player’s turn and s/he can defend as often as needed.
Ending the Game
The game ends as soon as no more gifts remain in the gift pile (that is, the players possess all the gifts). Players must take their gifts with them when the game ends, mainly because the game is often played with the intention of getting rid of bad gifts or items that King Bob no longer wants.
Some people enjoy adding a drinking element to all games. In this case, a player who loses a roll has to take a drink.
The United States has numerous Christmas traditions, ranging from elaborate decorations to re-gifting lame gifts like fruitcakes. While these are broad traditions, embraced by millions of Americans, there are also narrower traditions. One such tradition is the Fox & friends holiday ritual of claiming that there is a war on Christmas.
Gretchen Carlson and State Representative Doreen Carlson lit the ritual hyperbole log (not to be confused with the Yule log) near the end of November 2012. After discussing what she took as the latest evidence in the existence of the war, Carlson closed with “a lot of people, for whatever reason, will look at this interview today and say, Gretchen Carlson and Doreen Costa are nuts. They’re so nuts because they think there’s this made up war on Christmas. We’re not nuts, are we? There is a war on Christmas!”
While it is very tempting to dismiss Carlson and her fellows on the grounds of some sort of insanity, I will not do this. I do not think that she is insane. However, I do think that the war on Christmas is made up, in the same way that Santa is made up—only with a rather less pleasant intention behind the fiction.
While the term “war” gets thrown around so excessively by Americans (we have wars on everything, including actual wars on actual people) that is has become worn and shoddy, I will endeavor to present a rough account of what would be required for there to be a war on Christmas.
Roughly put, a war would seem to indicate a conflict with breadth and intensity. In terms of breadth, a true war typically would require a reasonable broad front, either literally or metaphorically. After all, a few sporadic episodes of violence that take place far from each other would hardly count as a war. In the case of the alleged war on Christmas, there would need to be battles occurring across adequately broad areas of the country as opposed to extremely limited numbers of isolated incidents. Not surprisingly fine folks at Fox traditionally make use of the hasty generalization (a fallacy in which a person draws a general conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not adequate in size) to create the impression that the few examples of what they claim are incidents in the war are actually general occurrences. Naturally, one should not take my word for this. If it really matters, a person can create a war map and plot out the locations of the alleged incidents to determine if they constitute a large enough number to count as a war. This can be done my imaging each incident as a fight proportional to the incident.
In terms of intensity, a true war (as opposed to a cold or false war) would seem to require a level of conflict that would intuitively match what is expected in war. If, for example, soldiers on opposing sides exchange taunts and occasionally throw rocks at each other, that would hardly seem to be a war. In the case of an actual war on Christmas, what would be needed would be attacks on Christmas of sufficient intensity to be considered warlike aggression against the holiday.
In general, Fox tends to point to incidents of the “intensity” discussed by Carlson and Costa. In Rhode Island, where Costa is a representative, the governor held a holiday tree lighting, rather than a Christmas tree lighting. Fox also points to cases in which Nativity scenes are not allowed to be displayed on state property, such as in front of or in government buildings. Incidents in which people say “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” are also taken as evidence of the war. On the face of it, these incidents do not seem intense enough to count as warfare.
There is also the fact that is blindingly obvious that Christmas itself is not under attack (other than the usual commercialism that corrupts the very heart of the holiday). After all, Christmas is not only completely legal, the overwhelming majority of Americans celebrate it and almost all Americans participate in some way (my atheist and non-Christian friends have never turned down a Christmas gift nor a Christmas dinner). Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas goose, Christmas lights, Christmas carols, Christmas services and so on are also completely legal and unhindered. It would take a strange epistemology indeed to believe that there is a war on this beloved and almost universally practiced (in America) holiday.
But, one might say, what about the fact that state officials, like the governor of Rhode Island, have “holiday tree” lightings. What about public schools having “winter breaks” rather than “Christmas breaks”? What about Nativity scenes not being set up in federal court houses? Are these not evidence of a most vile war on Christmas?
The obvious answer is “not at all.” One should be careful to note that what is occurring is that the state is simply not giving special treatment to the holiday of a specific faith (although Christmas seems to have extended way beyond Christianity) with the main focus being on the religious trappings. So, for example, trees, snowmen, Santa Claus and so on seem to be fine on state grounds. Baby Jesus, not so much. However, this is no more a war on Christmas than changing “chairman” to “chairperson” is a war on men. It just means that one specific faith is not getting special treatment denied to other faiths. Not always getting what one wants and not having one’s faith enshrined by the state is hardly the same thing as a war on Christmas.
What would an actual war on Christmas look like in America? That is easy enough to answer. From 1659-1681 the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. This was not the work of anti-Christians, but due to the Puritan opposition to Christmas on religious grounds. While New England is now famous as a Christmas place, the celebration of the holiday did not come into vogue until around the mid-19th century, at least around Boston. So, Fox, until people start banning Christmas across regions of the country again (or worse), talk of the war on Christmas is just annoying and divisive hyperbole. Worse, it gets people who have weak critical thinking skills upset, worried and angry and that is not the sort of holiday spirit that is right for the season. So, for the sake of the Christmas spirit, stop engaging in this foolishness.
My books make excellent gifts, especially for the fine folks at Fox.
Ricky Perry recently claimed that Obama is attacking religion. Fox News is already revving up its yearly war on Christmas fantasy. However, there do seem to be actual attacks on religion. One obvious example is the attempt to convince voters that Mormonism is a cult. Another example is FFA’s movement to get advertisers to pull advertisements from All American Muslim.
America is based on a principle of religious tolerance and, as such, these sorts of things should be condemned as going against one of our core principles. Naturally, the right to free speech allows people to say such things and for companies to remove their advertisements. But there is much to be said for being civil with faiths that differ from one’s own and also in not yielding to religious bigotry when making business decisions.
While these matters are well worth considering, the United States is still a very tolerant country in regards to religion. While there have been attempts to equate Islam with terrorism and thus infringe on religious freedoms in the name of security, we have largely resisted this urge. Other countries have not been so restrained in their treatment of non-dominant faiths and this, of course, includes the very real mistreatment of Christians in certain parts of the world. This should not, of course, be taken to justify abandoning our hard earned tolerance. Rather, it should show us exactly why the Christian majority in America should treat the religious minorities as they would wish to be treated if they were the minority.
One of our Christmas gifts was a heightening of the terror alert level in anticipation of attacks during the busy travel season. While no Christmas attacks materialized (perhaps because of the crippling storms), we did have a new episode in the War on Food. 89 people in 15 states (and the District of Columbia) were victims of food borne salmonella. Fortunately, swift action was taken to deal with this problem.
While a food safety bill was recently passed, this most recent incident serves to underscore the need for even more reform in food safety. Now, if Al Qaeda had dropped the salmonella into the food supply, I suspect that the reaction from pundits and politicians would be rather interesting. However, it is an interesting fact that a failed attempt by an underwear bomber resulted in a multi-million dollar makeover of airport security while these sort of incidents generate relatively little change. Now, if government contractors stood to make millions protecting us from food based dangers and politicians could ride a wave pf food paranoia into office, then I would suspect much more would be done.