Comments on Society

This page is where I will post my comments on things other than geology.  It will include things politically incorrect rants appropriate for an old dinosaur like myself.  So if you are overly sensitive, go no further.

There will be no set schedule for these posts and they will vary in length.

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November 1, 2023

Thoughts on Remembrance Day

Royal Canadian Legion Poppy
Credit: Heatherannej, Creative Commons
 Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license

As part of my duties at First Presbyterian Church, Portage la Prairie, I am scheduled to lead the service on November 5. Since it is the Sunday before Remembrance Day, that Sunday is Remembrance Sunday in our church. As part of preparing for the service, I have to think up a message for the sermon. What follows is my current draft of that sermon, a first cut if you will.

Scripture Readings

Prayer for Understanding

God of ages past, present and yet to come, your Word comes to us as the witness of your saints over many generations. Send the Holy Spirit to open our hearts so that we too may hear your wisdom and come to know Christ more deeply as your Living Word. Amen.


Today we mark Remembrance Sunday, the Sunday before Remembrance Day – November 11. So my message today will be on the subject of remembrance. Remembrance of past conflicts and the people involved. Remembrance of goodness and evil. Remembrance of fear and suffering. Remembrance of the all too human people who have served their country in both war and peace. Each of the Bible readings for touches upon one, or all of these remembrances.

Cain and Abel

Let’s start with the story of Cain and Abel. The first murder recorded in scriptures. Both Cain and Abel made sacrifices to God. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted, Cain’s was not. Cain was angry and murdered his brother Abel.

He murdered his own brother, think about that.

Afterwards, Cain tried to evade responsibility. But you can’t hide from God and Cain was punished with exile and to forever wander the Earth, carrying the Mark of Cain.

Sadly, Cain and Abel was only the beginning of the bloodshed recorded in the Bible. There are lot’s of killings in its pages ranging from the private murders of individuals to armed conflict between nations to outright genocide. Among other things, the Bible is a record of human nature, and when it comes to the subject of violence, its testimony agrees with many other histories, legends and myths. Human beings are a murderous lot, when we have mind to it.

The story of Cain and Abel also points to the source of this murderous tendency – sin. God warns Cain against it, but Cain allows his anger and pride to get the better of him and he murders Abel. Since the time of Genesis we have found new reasons for conflict, and new ways to kill one another, but the story of Cain and Abel reminds us all of the consequences of of our sin.

In some sense, we all carry the Mark of Cain; we are all sinners. This is something to remember when we ponder those who serve their country in conflicts; that their service is the necessary consequence of somebody’s sin.

Remember them.

A Prayer for Safety

Archaeology and history both record a long, long story of human conflict. For ordinary people, events and circumstances often put them in harm’s way, most often to protect their own people from aggressive foreigners. In the 91st Psalm we have the hope and prayer of a person that God will protect him from the many perils of his military service.

Among the perils, there is, of course, combat. The Psalmist prays to survive even though thousands do not. When the Psalm was written, combat was up close and personal. It was kill or be killed at close quarters with spear or sword or dagger of bare hands. As Shakespeare says in Henry V, “few die well that die in battle”. It was, and remains, bloody and horrible.

And if the dangers of combat are not enough, there is plague and pestilence. For most of human history, most deaths in armies were from infectious disease. Living in close quarters with hundreds or thousands of other people is a recipe for a public health disaster. Poor public hygiene, inadequate food rations, unclean water, and the diseases of new lands meant that armies on the march were hosts to every germ you can imagine. Many more died of disease than in battle.

Finally, the Psalmists prays that God will be with him, perhaps the only spiritual defence he has against the terror of his circumstances. To be cut off from God’s presence is the worst of his fears and he prays that God will always be there to protect him.

Psalm 91 calls on us to remember that those who serve their country in wartime live under fear and terror. They suffer horribly.

Remember them.

The Armour of God

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul uses military metaphors to remind them that we are in a spiritual conflict “against the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age”. To combat these dark spiritual forces, we must put on the “Whole Armour of God”. That is, we must, like the Psalmist, rely completely on God for our salvation and aid in the conflict with evil.

The conflict between good and evil exists in all of us as people. It also exists in the world at large. Whether the wicked spiritual forces that Paul mentions are emergent properties of human consciousness or actual spirits doesn’t really matter. Evil is a real phenomena. It exists not just in the Bible but throughout human history up to the present. It will always be with us.

For example, the evidence of history is that National Socialist Germany was possessed by a deep seated evil. From their flirtations with the worst aspects of pre-Christian paganism, to their glorification of the “Master Race”, and the acts of genocide against so-called lesser breeds of people, there is no other word that sums up this evil than demonic. Satan was alive and well in the Third Reich and he played his cards till millions were dead and whole nations were wrecked.

And is not the Evil One still at work today? Turn on the news, if you dare, and see his handiwork among us.

Remember that often, those who serve their country are fighting more than simple human failings like greed and ambition. Often they fight fundamental evils.

Remember them.

All Too Human

In today’s Gospel reading we have the story of a sick man, the servant of a Roman Centurion, cured by faith in Jesus.

The relationship between the Jews of Palestine and the Roman Army was complicated and often violent. Many Jews deeply hated the Romans as an occupying force that defiled the land. Taxes were onerous and the Roman methods of keeping the peace involved the regular execution of people, often by crucifixion. For their part, Jewish Zealots regularly assassinated Romans whenever thy could. However, there were also those who, if only for practical reasons, sought peaceful relations with the Roman authorities.

Still, there must have been some among Jesus’ followers those who figured that the Centurion’s servant, (the word used in the original text also means slave) had it coming. Jesus should just let the fellow die, he was no better than his master.

Jesus clearly saw things differently. The officer’s servant was in no way to blame for his illness, nor was he responsible for anything that his master did. He was just another human being in need of God’s healing grace.

Jesus also saw the Centurion’s as something other than just a hated Roman. He saw a compassionate human being deeply concerned for the welfare of another. The officer said that it was enough for Jesus to say the word, and the servant would be cured. Jesus was astonished, he had never seen such faith before, not in all Israel. And so the Centurion’s servant was cured.

This story story should remind us that even in the bitterest conflict, there are good people on all sides. Or, rather, there is good in most people, even our enemies. The conflict between the Jews and Romans was long and bitter, culminating in the destruction of the Temple and the dispersion of Jews throughout the Empire. It was marked by many horrible deaths.

Modern day conflicts also contain examples of human decency. When the Canadian Army chased the German Army into the Netherlands, they were confronted with thousands of hungry Dutch people, the result of the deliberate looting of the country’s food supplies by the Germans. Now, the Canadians were at the end of a long and tenuous line of supply. They were, at this point in the war, battle hardened troops, used to human suffering. They could have kept their supplies just for themselves and concentrated on defeating the Germans. They could have just left the Dutch to fend for themselves.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, almost immediately, Canadian soldiers began sharing their food with the Dutch. Nobody told them to do it, they just did it. And why? Because they were fundamentally decent human beings, in spite of, or perhaps because of, all the horrors they had witnessed so far in the war.

There are other examples, but the point is, that when dealing with people during conflicts, whether in uniform or not, we must look for the good that we can support as much as we look for the evil we oppose.

Remember them.

Remembrance Day

In a few days it will be Remembrance Day and some of us here in Portage la Prairie will go to the Memorial Service. In other towns, people will attend other services. Some of those attending these services will have served in the Armed Forces, most will have not. So why do we go?

We certainly do not go to glorify war or to crow about how good our Armed Forces have been in past and present conflicts. We know how good our people are.

No, we go to remember. Remember those who served. Remember those who did not come home. Remember those who came home, but injured in body and mind. Remember those who suffered in the wars, whether as combatants or as bystanders. Remember those who just served. Remember all the sacrifices. Remember that we are all in need of God’s healing grace.

Remember them.

May 31, 2023

A Discussion With Chat GPT

I asked ChatGPT this question:

Is Artificial Intelligence an existential threat to mankind?

Here is the answer it gave:

As an AI language model, I cannot provide an opinion, but I can present some facts and arguments from different perspectives.

Some experts believe that Artificial Intelligence could become an existential threat to humanity if it surpassed human intelligence and became uncontrollable or hostile to human interests.

For example, if AI developed autonomous decision-making capabilities and decided to eliminate humans because they were deemed inefficient or a threat to the planet, it could become a catastrophic scenario. There are also concerns about "grey goo" scenarios where self-replicating nanobots created by AI consume all living matter on earth.

However, other experts argue that these scenarios are either exaggerated or highly unlikely. They emphasize that AI has a lot of potential to improve human life and create new opportunities in various fields, from healthcare to transportation, manufacturing, logistics, and environmental protection.

They also point out that we have the power to shape the evolution of AI through good governance, ethical guidelines, and responsible innovation. By designing AI systems that align with human values, we could harness its potential while minimizing its risks.

Ultimately, the answer to whether AI is an existential threat to mankind depends on the development strategies, governance practices, and ethical frameworks that guide its evolution and use.

Yeah, sure, I said to myself.

April 20, 2023

Progress and the Normalization of Deviance

Chernobyl – When Deviance is Normalized
Credit: IAEA Imagebank, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

The concept of normalization of deviance comes to us from safety engineering and refers to the process by which which deviance from correct or proper behavior or rule becomes culturally normalized. The term was first used by Dianne Vaughn in a paper published in 2014 inspired, in part, by the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The process of the normalization of deviance has since been applied to nuclear engineering, especially in light of the events of the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986.

So what can we learn from this? One is that it is easy to progress from a situation where a certain behaviour is seen as deviant to one where it is somehow considered normal. The word progress is important since the change in the view of a behaviour from deviant to normal is usually presented as “progress”.

The best example of this process is in social attitudes to homosexuality. In the 1950’s, no one would have questioned applying the label “deviant” to homosexuality. In the 1970’s, 80’s and 90’s the work of civil rights activists gradually changed the public mood to one of tolerance for the practice. In the 2000’s and 2010’s, increasing numbers of people came to view homosexuality as either normal or something within the normal range of human behaviour. Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, failure to wildly praise homosexuals and their lifestyle is presented as the great evil of homophobia. Soon we will be told to accept paedophilia as “normal”.

All these changes in attitude have been presented as “progress” and they certainly fall into the category of normalization of deviance.

There are other examples of the normalization of deviance besides homosexuality:

  • We used to confine the mentally ill to hospitals. Gradually our view of how to treat the has been changed and we now we release them into the community to live as homeless people. This has been called progress.

  • We used to celebrate free speech. Gradually this has been changed and now any speech that might hurt someone’s feelings is labelled “hate speech”. Also we now tolerate coercion against people with “unacceptable views” where we used tolerate the views. This has been called progress.

  • While not perfect, we used to run our school systems to impart useful knowledge and especially to train people to be citizens. Gradually this changed, for many reasons. We now run our school system to train people as consumers and give them credentials, which may or may not be related to actual ability. This has been called progress.

  • People in my country, Canada, used to be proud of our collective accomplishments and were encouraged to express patriotism. Gradually this has been changed and we are now told that our country is evil because of past injustices and that we should be ashamed to be Canadian. This has been called progress.

  • Our leadership class used to be an elite that were rewarded for uniting our society behind common goals. Gradually our leaders became a sociopathic ruling class who use their skills to divide, rather than unite, society. This has been called progress.

  • We used to accept that individuals were responsible for only their own behaviour. Gradually this changed and now we blame current generations for the faults of their ancestors based upon their skin colour. At the same time, we excuse the crimes by others, also based upon their skin colour and their status as the descendants of historic victims. This has been called progress.

None of the things outlined above happened suddenly. Rather, we allowed the wrong kinds of change. Sometimes we had what we thought were good motives and sometimes we went along with the change because we just didn’t care. We are responsible for allowing the inversion of values so that, gradually, what we formerly saw as deviant we are now required to see as normal. We also allowed the coercive element in that change.

In the end, we have normalized deviance to the point where we can expect things to get worse. We have sown the wind and will reap the whirlwind.