Conservative Pastor Says Texas Shooting Victims Had Their "Prayers Answered" By Being Murdered

A Lutheran pastor and contributor to right-wing website The Federalist has written a column arguing that the mass shooting of 26 people at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas was all part of God's benevolent plan to deliver Christians from "eternal evil."  

Pastor Hans Fiene, a relatively unknown clergyman and conservative commentator, drew attention to himself this week with an article bearing the provocative title, "When The Saints Of First Baptist Church Were Murdered, God Was Answering Their Prayers.”

His article was a response to Sunday's mass shooting perpetrated by gunman Devin Patrick Kelley who killed 26 people and injured 20 — the deadliest mass shooting in a place of worship in modern history.

Fiene's argument revolves around the words "deliver us from evil" from the Lord's Prayer. “It may seem, on the surface, that God was refusing to give such protection to his Texan children,” he wrote. “But we are also praying that God... deliver us out of this evil world and into his heavenly glory, where no violence, persecution, cruelty, or hatred will ever afflict us again.”

In other words, while God did not protect the victims from "evil" on Sunday, it's okay because he has saved them from evil for eternity by letting them into Heaven.

Of course, in order to find these words compelling, one has to be a Lutheran Christian. Fiene does not address whether people of other faiths — Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. — would also get a fast track to Heaven if they were gunned down mid-worship. Nor does he address whether the one-year-old baby, who was among 8 children killed on Sunday, got into Heaven since he must have lacked the language skills to pray or understand the concept of an afterlife.

The most charitable interpretation of Fiene's essay is that he was attempting to offer comfort to his fellow believers in a time of tragedy. Like a priest at a funeral, he tells people, "I know you're sad, but take comfort in your faith that your loved ones are in a better place."

The core problem with arguments like Fiene's is that it tells people that death is not real, and thus tragedies are not that tragic. It takes the attention off politics and into theology, lulling people into a sense that nothing can be done. (After all, it's in "God's hands.")

Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, there is no question that preventing further gun violence in America will come from solutions in this life, not the next one. Better gun laws and mental health programs are the domain of government, not God.

Hurricane Harvey, Wildfires, and Climate Change Denial

For those of us who already believe in the existence of human-caused climate change, because we believe that conclusions about reality should connect to reason and chains of evidence, Hurricane Harvey and the wildfires across the country are a devastating, sad confirmation of what we already knew to be true.

But what is truly sad, and truly devastating, is that those who deny climate change will continue to do so despite its deadly evidence literally arriving at their doorstep. No doubt there are some number of people in Texas who saw their homes swallowed up by flood waters, but whose minds are still unconvinced that climate scientists, all 97% of them, are telling the truth. And no doubt there are even some number people in the Western United States, in Oregon, California and Colorado, who are literally choking on the ashen evidence of global warming, but who cannot bring themselves to abandon their ideological tribalism and join the rest of humanity in acknowledging the gravest threat our species has ever faced.

Who will change their minds, if the demonic screams of climate change itself cannot do so?

We have summoned Satan's wrath, only this time there is no Angel of Darkness, only the reality of the physical universe: starker and colder than any magical being ever conjured up by the imagination. Fight as we may, physical reality will storm into our homes, and take no prisoners. 

Only reason, science, and love, which are the real guardians of Humanity, can save us now.

Facebook's "Out-of-Control" AI?

Here is a somewhat strange but morally relevant media story that happened in the last few days: 

Many news outlets reported that Facebook had shutdown an A.I. research project because two A.I. systems started talking to each other in a "new language" that only the A.I.'s understood. Many people across the Web interpreted this to mean that the A.I. systems had gone haywire and so Facebook had panicked and quickly pulled the plug

Naturally, this invokes images of killer robots and Hal 9000-like creepy AI systems coming to get us. Unsurprisingly, people on social media reacted to this story with a mix of both comedy and terror. 

But in the ensuing hours, word came out that the headlines had mischaracterized what really happened with the Facebook project. It was an experiment by AI researchers at Facebook in which two chat bots had begun communicating in a garbled sentences, but it turns out that according to researchers this was a fairly predictable and non-scary side effect of the experiment. Also, Facebook apparently stopped the experiment simply because the incomprehensible communication made the chat bots hard to track, not because they were afraid the bots were out of control or nefarious. 

And, it should be noted, that these A.I. systems fall under the category of what researchers call "narrow A.I." — systems focused on a limited range of tasks — rather than "general A.I." — a theoretical yet not-currently-existent level of A.I. wherein a machine can perform any intellectual task that a human can. 

One Facebook A.I. researcher seemed pretty pissed about the way the story was reported, and he accused media outlets of writing clickbait headlines. I think that's a fair point. But I still think the Facebook story, however vaguely mischaracterized, portends a very real moral concern about A.I. safety. Simply put: Out-of-control A.I. systems could cause the end of human civilization within our children's lifetimes. 

There are many possible apocalyptic scenarios involving A.I.—an arms race between governments or corporations as they compete to be the first at major breakthroughs, massive income inequality when most jobs become replaced by A.I., and the general possibility that we could create a superintelligent AI whose goals diverge from our own

When I expressed this concern in a Facebook post, a friend of mine responded by saying that humans don't need biological systems per se, and that a kind of humanness or human legacy could persist in A.I. computer mainframes, making A.I. simply the next step in "evolution." He seemed to be suggesting something like "The Singularity," a wild nerd-fantasy in which people become one in the same with their computer systems. He also, strangely, seemed somewhat unsentimental about human beings. 

But to me, the concern is not "humanness," but consciousness itself. I'm defining consciousness here as a creature's inner subjective experience—something that, as far as we can tell, can only be experienced by humans and animals. In other words, your sense that there is a quality to your experience—the sounds, sensations, thoughts, and moods that you experience as having an internal character. It's possible, maybe, that a sufficiently designed computer system could also have this inner experience we call consciousness, but at this point we simply don't know. 

If AI, either by working in tandem with us as biological creatures or by allowing us to upload our conscious minds to the mainframe to give us eternal life (ie "The Singualrity) or some combination of the two, makes for better quality of experience by conscious systems (biological or computer), then AI could be good and I support that project. 

But on the other hand, if AI development cancels consciousness itself, either because it ends human life or because it is not in fact conscious like we are, then that would be bad. It would be a planet run by pure machinery with no inner life, no subjective experience of joy or sorrow or creativity or bliss or love or any other conscious state worth having. 

That sounds bad, doesn't it? 

So was it wrong for the media to blow up a semi-fake story about Facebook's out-of-control A.I.? Maybe. But being concerned about the safety of these powerful machines is also the just, right, and resoundingly moral thing to do. 

Global Catastrophe

There is no law of physics that says human beings will survive on this planet forever.

We don't like to think about it, but one day soon humans could face extinction. 

Generations of apocalypse myths, from Bible stories to modern sci-fi films, have numbed us to worrying about it.

Rather than rebuke our carelessness and hubris, these myths have had the opposite effect. It’s become too easy to say, "That only happens in the movies."

Sure, it only happen in the movies—until it really happens. 

According the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, a few conceivable ways the world could end: 

  • Climate Change 
  • Nuclear War 
  • Pandemics 
  • Artificial Intelligence 
  • Biotechnology 

In January, with the inauguration of President Trump we inched a little closer to the End of Days. This is according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, which produces the famous Doomsday Clock and announced that the clock is now only 2 ½ minutes to "midnight." That's 2 ½ minutes to the fatal end. For everyone

This kind of thing strains our hearts and minds. In fact it's the headiest moral abstraction we can contemplate.

And yet, it's the most important. 

In 1965 the media theorist Marshall McCluhan said, “There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth. We are all crew.” 

To prevent global catastrophe, we have to become this idea. 

There are no passengers. We're all crew. 

Clinton vs. Trump

We are witnessing a presidential campaign that rivals any reality TV show. And the star is—you guessed it—Donald Trump. Not Clinton, not Bernie.

The sleaze that oozes from Trump’s orifices is unlike any presidential candidate in history. The off-the-cuff racism. The insults to the press. The bombastic... 

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