This year’s midterms are getting more attention than usual, with high stakes for both parties. You’ve probably seen a fair amount of “horse race” coverage focusing on competition between rival candidates while downplaying policies and platforms. But if you know how to read these stories, it helps you understand what’s at stake for you and can even inform your own political participation. (Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.)Think about it this way: The campaigns themselves are constantly watching certain signals — polls, fundraising, public opinion — to understand what’s going on in their races. They want to know, “What should we do next if we want to win this election?” And they adjust their tactics accordingly.
You have the power to adjust your actions, too.
See below for the important questions you should be asking yourself as we get closer to the midterms.
1. How competitive is your district?
The Cook Political Report provides real-time analysis on whether your current representative will have an easy time hanging onto their seat or if a challenger has a shot at defeating them.
The Cook Report is a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal elections and campaigns — watching polls, tracking fundraising and outside spending, and talking to the campaigns and candidates — in order to assign a daily rating on the competitiveness of each race:
Solid (Republican or Democrat): These races are not considered competitive and are not likely to become closely contested.
Likely (Republican or Democrat): These seats are not considered competitive at this point, but they have the potential to become engaged.
Lean (Republican or Democrat): These are considered competitive races, but one party has an advantage.
Toss-Up: These are the most competitive; either party has a good chance of winning.
These ratings are updated daily, all based on what’s happening on the campaign trail. Look up where your district is for the:
Political organizations and nonprofit committees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing the midterm elections, so tracking your candidates’ campaign finances is another insightful metric. Where did they get all that money, and how are they spending it?
One detail that can help you determine the strength of a campaign is the percentage of funds raised from individuals vs. PACs, or political action committees. A PAC is simply a collection of individuals who have pooled their money to donate to candidates. The best funded PACs are affiliated with corporations and interest groups — the NRA, Planned Parenthood and labor unions all have PACs — but they can also be funded by civically engaged folks who aren’t political operators.
A reliance on PACs, versus individual donors, can tell you something about a candidate’s institutional support versus grassroots support. A higher percentage of funds from PACs means a candidate’s donor money comes mostly in fairly large checks, as opposed to donations from individuals. A higher percentage of individual donations, on the other hand, is a sign of grassroots enthusiasm about the campaign.
To look up specific campaign fundraising details by candidate OR race type, check out ProPublica’s Election Databot.
3. But what do the numbers mean?
Most political fundraising amounts sound like a LOT of money to the average person. So, how do you know what those numbers mean?
Campaigns need cash to get their messages out, and in a competitive race it can be hard to be on television or to organize rallies if you’re not raising a ton of money.
That’s where the Cook Report ranking numbers come in handy: More competitive races typically attract more money. A toss-up race is likely to have two candidates who have raised more money than many other candidates in less competitive contests.
You can also look at the money gap between two candidates. If a candidate is at the lower end of the fundraising scale, particularly against a well-funded competitor, that usually indicates their chances are not great. (But there are exceptions — see June’s Democratic primary race in New York’s 14th Congressional District, in which 28-year-old challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the highly funded incumbent congressman Joe Crowley in a major upset. So don’t stop believin’ if your candidate of choice is outspent. Money is important, but it’s not the only factor in getting elected.)
Another way to look into your candidates’ issues is to look up your candidates’ press releases on ProPublica’s Represent database. Done well, press releases are a way for candidates to tell voters who they are and set their positions on issues. (These can also conveniently double as venue for trash-talking their opponents.)
For your local races, the League of Women Voters has the goods
There’s only so much ProPublica can track with our data on federal candidates — which is why we’ve partnered with the League of Women Voters, which has a trove of information all the way down your ballot. The League is nonpartisan and works to arm citizens with the information they need to confidently vote.
For its Vote411.org project, the League reached out to every single candidate running for local and state office and asked each one a set of identical questions, like:
What experiences qualify you to represent the citizens living in your district?
What would be your top three priorities if elected?
How will you work to increase job opportunities for your constituents?
Because the League has so much juice in the political space, the majority of candidates actually answered, in their own words, allowing you to see where those running for office in your community stand on the issues.
You can get a list of all the information that the League of Women Voters has on local, state and federal candidates and ballot measures by searching for your address or state here.
Now that you can put race ratings, campaign statements and fundraising into context, use the Election DataBot to look up the latest information in your own House and Senate races.
Many atheists think that their atheism is the product of rational thinking. They use arguments such as “I don’t believe in God, I believe in science” to explain that evidence and logic, rather than supernatural belief and dogma, underpin their thinking. But just because you believe in evidence-based, scientific research – which is subject to strict checks and procedures – doesn’t mean that your mind works in the same way.
When you ask atheists about why they became atheists (as I do for a living), they often point to eureka moments when they came to realize that religion simply doesn’t make sense.
Oddly perhaps, many religious people actually take a similar view of atheism. This comes out when theologians and other theists speculate that it must be rather sad to be an atheist, lacking (as they think atheists do) so much of the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious people have access to – stuck in a cold world of rationality only.
The science of atheism
The problem that any rational thinker needs to tackle, though, is that the science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists. Indeed, atheists are just as susceptible as the next person to “group-think” and other non-rational forms of cognition. For example, religious and nonreligious people alike can end up following charismatic individuals without questioning them. And our minds often prefer righteousness over truth, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has explored.
Even atheist beliefs themselves have much less to do with rational inquiry than atheists often think. We now know, for example, that nonreligious children of religious parents cast off their beliefs for reasons that have little to do with intellectual reasoning. The latest cognitive research shows that the decisive factor is learning from what parents do rather than from what they say. So if a parent says that they’re Christian, but they’ve fallen out of the habit of doing the things they say should matter – such as praying or going to church – their kids simply don’t buy the idea that religion makes sense.
This is perfectly rational in a sense, but children aren’t processing this on a cognitive level. Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have often lacked the time to scrutinize and weigh up the evidence – needing to make quick assessments. That means that children to some extent just absorb the crucial information, which in this case is that religious belief doesn’t appear to matter in the way that parents are saying it does.
Even older children and adolescents who actually ponder the topic of religion may not be approaching it as independently as they think. Emerging research is demonstrating that atheist parents (and others) pass on their beliefs to their children in a similar way to religious parents – through sharing their culture as much as their arguments.
Some parents take the view that their children should choose their beliefs for themselves, but what they then do is pass on certain ways of thinking about religion, like the idea that religion is a matter of choice rather than divine truth. It’s not surprising that almost all of these children – 95% – end up “choosing” to be atheist.
Science versus beliefs
But are atheists more likely to embrace science than religious people? Many belief systems can be more or less closely integrated with scientific knowledge. Some belief systems are openly critical of science and think it has far too much sway over our lives, while other belief systems are hugely concerned to learn about and respond to scientific knowledge.
But this difference doesn’t neatly map onto whether you are religious or not. Some Protestant traditions, for example, see rationality or scientific thinking as central to their religious lives. Meanwhile, a new generation of postmodern atheists highlight the limits of human knowledge, and see scientific knowledge as hugely limited, problematic even, especially when it comes to existential and ethical questions. These atheists might, for example, follow thinkers like Charles Baudelaire in the view that true knowledge is only found in artistic expression.
And while many atheists do like to think of themselves as pro-science, science and technology itself can sometimes be the basis of religious thinking or beliefs, or something very much like it. For example, the rise of the transhumanist movement, which centers on the belief that humans can and should transcend their current natural state and limitations through the use of technology, is an example of how technological innovation is driving the emergence of new movements that have much in common with religiosity.
Even for those atheists skeptical of transhumanism, the role of science isn’t only about rationality – it can provide the philosophical, ethical, mythical and aesthetic fulfilments that religious beliefs do for others. The science of the biological world, for example, is much more than a topic of intellectual curiosity – for some atheists, it provides meaning and comfort in much the same way that belief in God can for theists. Psychologists show that belief in science increases in the face of stress and existential anxiety, just as religious beliefs intensify for theists in these situations.
Clearly, the idea that being an atheist is down to rationality alone is starting to look distinctly irrational. But the good news for all concerned is that rationality is overrated. Human ingenuity rests on a lot more than rational thinking. As Haidt says of “the righteous mind”, we are actually “designed to ‘do’ morality” – even if we’re not doing it in the rational way we think we are. The ability to make quick decisions, follow our passions and act on intuition are also important human qualities and crucial for our success.
It is helpful that we have invented something that, unlike our minds, is rational and evidence-based: science. When we need proper evidence, science can very often provide it – as long as the topic is testable. Importantly, the scientific evidence does not tend to support the view that atheism is about rational thought and theism is about existential fulfilments. The truth is that humans are not like science – none of us get by without irrational action, nor without sources of existential meaning and comfort. Fortunately, though, nobody has to.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
NAIROBI, Kenya – Dr. Evan Atar Adaha knows that faith matters to many of his patients at the Maban Referral Hospital in South Sudan’s Upper Nile State.
So, before administering the anesthetic for surgery, he recites verses from the Bible or the Quran with patients. Then the 52-year-old surgeon, who is Roman Catholic, follows with a short prayer — according to the patient’s faith — before taking up his surgical knife.
“My faith contributes a lot to my work,” said the surgeon, who is known simply as Atar. “I am inspired by a belief that we are all from one God. As we work, I keep telling my colleagues that we are one family and we must save lives.”
Atar is the only surgeon in Maban Referral Hospital. For more than two decades he has provided medical services to people fleeing war and persecution in Sudan and South Sudan.
Along with his surgical duties, he can also be found pushing the operating table, playing with a newborn or even fixing a light.
On Sundays, he relaxes by going to church.
For his service to refugees, the doctor has been named the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 2018 Nansen Award winner. He received the award Oct. 1 in Geneva, Switzerland.
“Dr. Atar’s work through decades of civil war and conflict is a shining example of profound humanity and selflessness,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, in a statement. “Through his tireless efforts, thousands of lives have been saved, and countless men, women, and children provided with a new chance to rebuild the future.”
Named after Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian explorer and humanitarian, the award honors extraordinary service to refugees, displaced people and the stateless. According to the UNHCR website, the award includes $150,000 to fund a project designed in tandem with the agency.
“I am humbled by this award. It comes with some resources. We will use them to meet our next challenges,” said Atar, who is also the medical director in the 120-bed hospital, located about 600 kilometers southeast of the South Sudan capital, Juba.
Over the years, his hospital — which handles all manner of medical problems, including gunshot wounds, malaria and cesarean sections — has become a lifesaver for more than 200,000 people in the troubled region. Of these, 140,000 are refugees who fled violence in Sudan’s Blue Nile region.
Originally from Torit town in southern South Sudan, Atar studied medicine in Khartoum and later practiced in Egypt. In 1997, he moved to Kurmuk in Blue Nile State at the height of a Sudanese civil war. Amid falling bombs and intense fighting between government forces and rebels, he ran a health center that treated both civilians and fighters.
Increased bombing by the Sudanese air force in 2011 forced Atar and his team to flee with thousands of refugees to Maban, where he continued providing similar services.
“We started from nothing. At one time I had to bring down a door for use as an operating table,” he said.
The health center eventually grew into a hospital, with assistance from the UNHCR and from Samaritan’s Purse, the international evangelical relief organization run by Franklin Graham. “We still are trying to see how we can expand the hospital to offer more services to the people.”
In South Sudan, health care is often is short supply. There are serious shortages of drugs, equipment and skilled medical personnel. Armed groups also loot medical facilities and have kidnapped, detained and killed doctors and nurses.
When the country became independent in 2011, there were 120 doctors and 100 nurses serving a population of 12 million, according to UNHCR. In Maban, Atar has a 53-member staff, including three other doctors — two from Kenya and one from Uganda.
Atar’s wife and three children live in Nairobi. He sees them only a few times a year.
Most of his time is consumed with keeping the hospital running. Atar says his staff needs more training and equipment. And there’s never enough room for patients.
The hospital’s maternity ward has 30 beds, said Atar. He’d like to see that number doubled. At times, he said, there’s not enough room and maternity patients have to sleep on the floor.
After a Facebook post by a prominent University of Mississippi donor was denounced as racist, some professors say the university should rename its journalism school for an African-American journalist who crusaded against lynching.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born a slave in Mississippi in 1862. She went on to become an investigative reporter in nearby Memphis, Tennessee, and denounced racial violence. She helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and pushed for women’s right to vote. Wells-Barnett died in 1931 in Chicago.
Ole Miss donor Ed Meek, for whom the Meek School of Journalism and New Media is named, has asked that his name be removed from the school after he posted photos of two black women on Facebook on Sept. 19 and wrote: “A 3 percent decline in enrollment is nothing compared to what we will see if this continues … and real estate values will plummet as will tax revenues. We all share in the responsibility to protect the values we hold dear that have made Oxford and Ole Miss known nationally.”
Meek apologized for the post after receiving sharp criticism. The women were University of Mississippi students who said they had simply gone out after a football game to have fun with friends. Both denounced Meek’s post as demeaning.
A letter from 62 Ole Miss professors and several instructors and graduate students was published Friday in the student newspaper, The Daily Mississippian , suggesting the journalism school be named for Wells-Barnett. They also suggest that the university start journalism scholarships for black women and that it start a Reparative Justice Committee that would work toward removing a Confederate soldier statue that has stood for generations in a prominent place on campus.
“Removing Ed Meek’s name from the School is a necessary, but basic, step in a much longer process of reparative justice,” the letter said. “Our university must firmly stand for its stated values of intellectual excellence, non-discrimination and inclusion and support for all its students.”
The ultimate decision about whether to remove Meek’s name from the journalism school would belong to the state College Board. Meek led Ole Miss public relations for 37 years, starting in 1964, and has had other publishing businesses. The journalism school was named for him after he and his wife donated $5.3 million in 2009.
The university has struggled for decades to deal with its history of troubled race relations. White mobs rioted on campus in the autumn of 1962 as James Meredith became the first black student to enroll at Ole Miss; military troops were called in and Meredith was escorted by federal marshals.
Mississippi’s population is about 38 percent black, and black students made up 12.7 percent of the Ole Miss enrollment in 2017.
In an effort to promote racial diversity in recent years, Ole Miss renamed a street that had been called Confederate Drive and installed plaques to provide historical background, including on the Confederate soldier statue.
In July 2017, the university announced it would put up signs acknowledging that some buildings on campus were built with slave labor. The university also announced then that it would remove the name of James K. Vardaman from a building. Vardaman, a white supremacist, was Mississippi’s governor from 1904 to 1908 and a U.S. senator from 1913 to 1919.