Rest Stop Anthropology

March 27, 2008

I really enjoyed the drive to New Orleans for CGI U a week or two ago. Driving through rural Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana is fascinating for anyone with an interest in anthropology.

At my lunch stop in some tiny place in the southeastern corner of Arkansas, smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, I was almost awed by the voice of the girl who waited on me. It was truly the thickest and oddest accent I had heard in Arkansas, and I had a hard time understanding her, despite my having lived my entire life in Arkansas. Actually, I thought the girl might have a speech impediment at first, until the other girl working at the same restaurant came to the counter and spoke with the exact same accent.

Later in they day I stopped to use the bathroom at a gas station. I occasionally get a kick out of the poor spelling of bathroom graffiti, or grown at the ignorance or racism that inevitably dominates the messages.

However, this bathroom had recently had all of its graffiti oh-so-artfully covered with spray paint, presumably by management. Only two messages had since been penned on the wall over the urinal.

One: “Acts 2:38: Jesus is the only way to salvation!”

The other: “Fuck you” (apparently not in direct response to the former message)

I want to coin a new general scientific law for rest stop anthropology. Let’s call it Globalizati’s Theorem:

As one drives South, the ratio of bathroom graffiti messages containing religious messages and messages containing profanity approaches 1.


March 11, 2008

Many Doctors, Many Tests, No Rhyme or Reason

All of our investments in high-tech medicine and tons of tests, as well as the drive toward further specialization, aren’t really having an impact on public health indicators like life expectancy and child mortality. But for those who want to go into medicine (like me) the sexy, intellectually-stimulating, cutting-edge, fiscally-rewarding work is in those specialties.

We need to have a different focus.

“In an age of explosive development in the realm of medical technology, it is unnerving to find that the discoveries of Salk, Sabin, and even Pasteur remain irrelevant to much of humanity.” – Paul Farmer

“The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” – Rudolf Virchow

Away Message

July 20, 2007

I’m sorry, I’m away from my blog right now. For the next month I’ll be interning in Washington, D.C. at an undisclosed location (not the same one frequented by Dick Cheney, hopefully) so updates shall be sporadic at best. If you need emotional comfort during my absence, please visit the lovely sites represented on my blogroll. Cheers.

Also, today is the 38th anniversary of the first Moon Landing. Hurrah!

The Age of the Impossibility of Disbelief

June 3, 2007


In her excellent book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong takes an interesting detour on the language of belief and doubt. She describes how the proliferation of religious choices may have made faith more difficult, not less:

Indeed, by the end of the sixteenth century, many people in Europe felt that religion had been gravely discredited. They were disgusted by the killing of Catholics by Protestants and Protestants by Catholics. Hundreds of people had died as martyrs for holding views that it was impossible to prove one way or the other. Sects preaching a bewildering variety of doctrines that were deemed essential for salvation had proliferated alarmingly. There was now too much theological choice: many felt paralyzed and distressed by the variety of religious interpretations on offer. Some may have felt that faith was becoming harder to achieve than ever.

So did people respond with atheism, or something else?

Yet in fact a full-blown atheism in the sense that we use the word today was impossible. As Lucien Febvre has shown in his classic book The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century, the conceptual difficulties in the way of a complete denial of God’s existence at this time were so great as to be insurmountable. From birth and baptism to death and burial in the churchyard, religion dominated the life of every single man and woman. Every activity of the day, which was punctuated with church bells summoning the faithful to prayer, was saturated with religious beliefs and institutions: they dominated professional and public life—even the guilds and the universities were religious organizations. As Febvre points out, God and religion were so ubiquitous that nobody at this stage thought to say “So our life, the whole of our life, is dominated by Christianity! How tiny is the area of our lives that is already secularized, compared to everything that is still governed, regulated and shaped by religion!”

I wonder, what dominates our own lives in such a way that we cannot realize? How shackled is our thinking by the commonplace? It’s a fascinating line of questioning.

Even if an exceptional man could have achieved the objectivity necessary to question the nature of religion and the existence of God, he would have found no support in either the philosophy or the science of his time. Until there had formed a body of coherent reasons, each of which was based on another cluster of scientific verifications, nobody could deny the existence of a God whose religion shaped and dominated the moral, emotional, aesthetic and political life of Europe. Without this support, such a denial could only be a personal whim or a passing impulse that was unworthy of serious consideration. As Febvre has shown, a vernacular language such as French lacked either the vocabulary or the syntax for skepticism. Such words as “absolute,” “relative,” “causality,” “concept,” and “intuition” were not yet in use. We should also remember that as yet no society in the world had eliminated religion, which was taken for granted.

So, what things enabled people to visualize a world without God, and develop a secular existence? And what things encouraged them along that path? I think the religious wars of Europe and, as Armstrong mentioned, the overwhelming variety of religions from which to choose, both made religion in general seem less desirable. I’m not enough of a philosopher to name pivotal events in that movement that made a secular worldview possible, but in the field of science, Darwin was certainly one of the key turning points. Here’s a quote from Richard Dawkins in The Blind Watchmaker:

An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: “I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.” I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.

But the question remains–what else is holding us back?

If this ain’t satire, it sure should be.

June 2, 2007

I came across Blogs 4 Brownback (via Jones Town) and have been alternating between laughing and cringing. I laugh because of the sheer inanity of it all. I cringe because I’m not sure if these people are serious or not.


The best post is definitely “Heliocentrism is an atheist doctrine.” That’s right; all that crap those science teachers have been shoveling you about the Earth orbiting the Sun is a deception to take you away from Christianity. A brilliant excerpt:

However, for both moral and theological reasons, we should always bear in mind that the Earth does not move. If it moved, we would feel it moving. That’s called empiricism, the experience of the senses. Don’t take my word for it, or the evidence of your own senses, Copernicans. There’s also the Word of the Lord: “He has fixed the earth firm, immovable.” (1 Chronicles 16:30)

There’s a post called “Profiles in Courage: Kirk Cameron” about the guy who brought us the Banana Argument for theism.

Then there are posted lauding Paul Wolfowitz and arguing that pornographers deserve the death penalty. They question whether anyone has ever flown in outer space, or whether satellites are all just a hoax. In answering the question of why Southern students do poorly in standardized testing, we get the following wisdom:

Northeastern students do better because the tests involve Copernicanism, Darwinism, and other deceptions of the International Leftist Movement. Students in other parts of the country don’t learn as much of this nonsense; thus, although they are actually better-educated, and for less money, too, they fare poorly on tests involving esoteric knowledge of modern pseudoscience and homosexual-influenced literature.

And finally, a little gem from the sidebar:

If this is satire, it’s the best thing I’ve seen since Shelley the Republican. It’s only unfortunate that they don’t spend more time talking about Sam Brownback. Now that would be funny.