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Category: Philosophy (page 1 of 3)

‘Tis the Season to Talk about Religion – Believe It or Not

I just had an interesting conversation about religion with a guy working at my house.

He overheard my end of a phone call with another secular activist about a church-state violation. When I hung up he asked if those were the kinds of cases I take. He knows I’m a lawyer.

“Tis the season for violations of the separation of church and state,” I said lightly, not sure how much he might want to explore the subject or what his feelings might be on it. I’m wary when people I don’t know well bring up the topic of religion. The conversation could go well or it could get very uncomfortable very fast.

“Church and state ought to be completely separate,” he said, “especially in schools when kids are pretty much forced to go along with whatever the class is doing.”

jefferson-separation-of-church-and-state - no religion

 

I couldn’t agree more. It’s not fair to non-Christian schoolchildren to be told by their teachers what to believe about Christmas, which they may or may not celebrate for any number of reasons. For that matter, there are Christian children who don’t celebrate Christmas. There are non-Christians who do celebrate Christmas for reasons other than religion. If a child is doing religion “wrong,” the proper place for correction is home or their place of worship, not a public school.

secular christmas - religion comes in different guises this season

 

One thing led to another, and as the conversation developed he told me he had lots of questions, because the whole “god” thing just didn’t make sense to him. I told him about a certain hissy fit I threw over religion when I was a kid. It has never made sense to me, either.

Then he said that he goes to church, but he doesn’t buy everything the preacher says. Who does? I wonder.

We talked about the notion of a prime mover. I strongly suspect that Aristotle was not the first person to wrestle with the notion of what it was that tipped the first domino and set the whole universe into motion. My response to the prime mover concept is, “Okay, but what made the first mover move? Even St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest philosophers Christendom ever produced, ultimately said that God’s existence had to be taken on faith because there was no proof.

My new friend said he thought it was safer to believe, because what if he’s wrong?

Calvin's wager about Santa. It's the same as Pascal's.

 

“You’ve just described Pascal’s Wager,” I told him. If his preferred deity is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, why won’t his god know about his doubts? If what he outwardly professed conflicted with what his logical processes and his gut told him, wouldn’t that sort of god-the god our culture is typically familiar with-have a clue?

And furthermore, what if the religion he placed his bet on wasn’t the right one? What if there is some other god that really controls it all? What if there are a lot of gods who control by committee? What if those gods really couldn’t care less what people do – isn’t that the more likely scenario?

Then we talked about using the scientific method to explain things that were only explained in the past by “God did it.” I explained the concept of the God of the Gaps, and how that God keeps getting smaller and smaller with every new discovery and addition to scientific knowledge.

 

god of the gaps - religion plugs holes

 

Finally he confided that he didn’t believe in the Abrahamic god, but he would never admit that to his wife. And, ultimately, that’s why he goes to church.

There are so many of us out there, closeted and questioning.

Come out, come out, wherever you are.

Why I Don’t Want My Country Back

I keep hearing people say, “I want my country back.” I don’t understand why they want to regress rather than progress.

We have within our voting booths, email accounts, and voices the ability to make this country truly great. We should use them to make great things happen.

But, to go back?

I would not want to take my country back to a time when a state religion was mandated. The autodidacts of the Enlightenment gave us a gift when, first in the Virginia Declaration and then in the First Amendment, they mandated that states have to stay out of the religion business. By necessity this meant that religion also has to stay out of state business. The last “established church” (in Connecticut) was done away with in 1813 .

conn church

Congregationalist Church in Enfield, Conn. Remember Jonathan Edwards and his bombastic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God“?

There are political leaders today who claim they want to take the country back to a time when religion invaded every nook and cranny of political life. They’re asking for witch trials, criminal prosecutions for wearing lace, fines for not going to church, taxes that support one church but not anther.

Whose religion will the state support in that scenario? And whose interpretation of that religion? Will we end up in a bloody civil war over predestination and evangelism? Will atheists be burned at the stake? We have a lot of work to do in this area so that the American public understands what the founding fathers did: a secular state is the only one that can possibly serve all of its citizens. I sure wouldn’t go back to a time when states were able to mandate religion, before the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1864 that finally required all of the states to abide by the Bill of Rights. I don’t want that country back.

Other important Amendments to the Constitution were also passed in those heady days immediately following the Civil War, like the one that abolished slavery and the other one that extended the right to vote to every citizen regardless of race. I wouldn’t want to take my country back to a time when an entire demographic was enslaved and marginalized, disenfranchised and dispossessed of even basic human dignity.

30VOTING-tmagArticle

Credit: Bob Daugherty/Associated Press, 1964

We’ve already lost some of the protections minorities had against the privileged majority with the loss of the Voting Rights Act. The ballot box is still under siege from people who would make it harder for the poor, the young, and the elderly to vote. We have to get more people to the polls on every election day, and we have to pass laws reforming campaign finance so that elections are actually decided on the merits of the candidate’s platform and not on the size of their sponsor’s bank accounts. Who wants to live in a country where elections go to the highest bidder? Not me.

As a woman, I wouldn’t want to take my country back to an era when I would not have  had a voice in politics. That means I wouldn’t go back to a time before the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1919.

suffragettes

Suffrage parade, New York City, May 6, 1912

I wouldn’t ever want to go back to a time when a woman’s “place” was barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Shackling women to their homes and children, shaming them for working and for success in other endeavors, removing from them their rights to own property or even have guardianship of their own children does an extreme disservice to half the population. That means I wouldn’t take my country back to the time before World War II, when so many women joined the iconic Rosie the Riveter in the workforce.

apron and satan

Discouraging girls from achieving their dream occupation shortchanges not just them, but our entire society. We can all benefit from the power of a brain enthusiastically focused on doing something worthwhile. If we tell boys they can be firemen or doctors  but tell girls they’ll be someone’s wife, we effectively tell our daughters that they will identify themselves by someone else’s name and someone else’s achievements. We send our girls the message that they aren’t good enough tall by themselves.  If that’s what we would return to, I don’t want that country back.

MRS degree

We hear people say they want to return to the values of the 1950’s, when June Cleaver vacuumed her comfortable home in heels and pearls, when Wally and the Beav could roam the neighborhood without supervision, where Ward wore a suit and held the same white collar job for years without stress. I have news for those people: The Cleavers were fiction. They didn’t exist except on television. Neither did that perfectly well-adjusted, large, blended Brady family in the 1970’s. When we say we want our country back, we say we long for only the good parts of a fictional, idealized era where no bad happened. It doesn’t exist and it never did.

Now is better, but it still isn’t good enough. There aren’t enough women yet in positions of power.  Women are capable business and community leaders. There still aren’t enough female CEOs of major corporations, there aren’t enough women in politics, there aren’t enough women of high rank in the military, there aren’t enough women in STEM fields, and women still don’t have the earning power of men.

We made progress in this country when becoming pregnant didn’t automatically trigger wedding bells at the business end of the proverbial shotgun.  We made progress when not just women but men were given the option of leaving bad marriages without suffering social opprobrium. We still need to improve our laws so that single parents have more support from society, so that they can earn a living wage and still have time to spend with their children. Child care needs to be more affordable and widely available so that single parents as well as married women who want financial independence aren’t prevented from reaching for it because they can’t afford to. Truly, as a society, we can’t afford for them not to.

I wouldn’t go back to a time when Jim Crow was not only the unwritten law of the land, but enshrined in statutes. This means I wouldn’t go back to a time before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, or even before Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law.

Let’s not take our country back to a time when a family was prevented from moving next door to us simply because of the color of their skin, or when our a playmates were prevented from going to the same school as we did – again, because of the color of their skin. This means I wouldn’t want take the country back to a time before 1968 when the Fair Housing Act became law. My hometown’s schools were integrated in 1968 – the year I started first grade – and I’m glad it didn’t take still longer.

No, I would not want to take this country back to a time when people I knew and enjoyed as friends were treated like second-class citizens, not considered good enough to drink from the same water fountain as I could or to use the same public restroom as I did. We got rid of those statutes and are still fighting an uphill battle for racial equality and equal opportunity. We still have to deal with privilege and marginalization. It’s better, but it still isn’t good.

We haven’t made enough progress in this department: we are incarcerating practically the entire demographic of black males, forever foreclosing their capacity to contribute to society or even to their families in any meaningful way. Young black men get profiled and executed in the streets. The sentences imposed for minor crimes are not only excessive,m they are applied disproportionately along racial lines. Our prisons are focused on punishment rather than rehabilitation and successful reentry to society. They days of lynchings aren’t really over – they just look different. We have a lot more work to do.

15.0212.lynching

Image from a 1920 lynching in Texas, via Wikimedia Commons

Our society made progress in my lifetime when women were finally granted the right to defend our bodies against unwanted intruders, be they marital rapists or unwanted pregnancies. We haven’t made nearly enough progress in this area, even though we thought we had won it 40 years ago; a woman’s right to decide how and when her body will be used is under a concerted and coordinated attack from those who would reduce women to incubators.  That means I don’t want to take the country back to a pre-1973 world, where Roe v. Wade didn’t protect my body from involuntary servitude to an organism that might kill me. I was eleven years old when that case was decided. No, I wouldn’t go back, even though summers seemed to last forever back then.

I would never, ever want to go back to a time where education of the young was the province of churches, or that religion was allowed in the classroom. We made excellent progress in this regard – again, within my lifetime – and it is under constant threat from teachers who tell children they aren’t Christian enough (this is a state mandating religion again) or who deny evolution and other proven scientific theories (because their preachers tell them to).

In fact, we as a society don’t do enough to ensure that our population is educated. There is a significant segment of the American population that is anti-intellectual and proud of it. (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin.) These people not only stymie the efforts of good brains, they threaten our nation’s ability to compete in the world’s markets, our health, and our standard of living. We have a lot more work to do in this area. Until every person in the country has access to affordable higher education, we undermine our growth both intellectually and economically.

And this brings me to pseudoscience. We may not have stereotypical snake oil salesmen on every street corner, but we do have quacks on television and Playboy Playmates (TM), all of whom have large soapboxes from which to sell modern-day snake oil in the form of fad diets, homeopathy, and “nutritional” supplements, and who undermine and misrepresent scientific progress.

Polio has become almost nonexistent in my lifetime. Diphtheria has virtually disappeared during my parents’ lifetimes. Smallpox was eradicated in my lifetime.  I would never want to take my country back to a time before antibiotics, vaccines, and modern surgical techniques. That means I don’t want last year’s country back.

But we need to do more to improve health and welfare. We can’t do it if our teachers won’t teach the theory of evolution and idiots without scientific training claim vaccines cause autism. We also can’t do it if every poorly-tested drug is advertised to the uneducated masses. We need to make more progress in this area.

I’ve now brought us into the present. I definitely don’t want to go back to any of what I’ve described.

Moving forward is the only option I see.

country back

You can get this on a t-shirt. Click the image to order.

Rant about Slackers

I count slackers as worthless wastes of perfectly good oxygen that someone else could be breathing. Slackers contribute to the proliferation of greenhouse gases without any compensating positive effect on the world.

I understand laziness; I can be lazy with the best of them. Procrastination? Hey – I’m a champ. I’m not going to condemn anyone for being a little lazy or for procrastinating a bit.

I may be lazy, but I'm no slacker.

But when someone deliberately, intentionally, without reason, refuses to do what is expected of them-and what they are paid to do-I have to draw the line. These people come in different flavors and they come with different insidious excuses.

Mostly, slackers. Also, people who hate kittens.

 

Every boss should encourage the occasional mental health day, just to boost morale among their employees. Such days off allow people to adjust their attitudes. Some severe cases of anal glaucoma need more than a day. They should take a week. Heck, take two. Really think about why they’re coming to work every day. And if the answer is that they hate their jobs or co-workers, they need to find someplace else to suck the soul out of their surroundings. Because by not doing their jobs, they’re making more work for everyone around them, lowering morale, and raising resentments.

When they sit around acting like it’s the weekend when there’s work to be done? That means more stress and more work for everyone else. If all they can do is stare into space, they need to take leave time to get their heads on straight so they can come back to work refreshed and actually do their jobs.

slacker=irresponsible

 

There’s a special, swampy pool of fetid disgust I reserve especially for people who don’t want to perform their jobs to the best of their abilities, in a reasonably timely fashion, and for the benefit of their customers and clients. These, too, are slackers. Too often their reasons for deficient performance come down to “it’s too much effort.”  Do they really think, even for a moment, that other people can’t recognize one of those whiny excuses for what they are? I really hate working with those kinds of people.slackerThis especially applies in industries like law and medicine, where the quality of clients’ and patients’ lives actually depend on the attention we give to detail when taking care of them. If a professional service provider is not willing to do what’s ethically necessary, it’s time for them to look for a new career-because they’re hurting the very people they’re supposed to be helping. They cause a ripple effect of harm that sloshes out messily around them.

 

Slackers: Noah wasn't one.

 

Lazy people who are self-employed don’t stay in business long. That means that the true slackers are working with other people, sucking the productivity and enthusiasm for the project straight out of their colleagues’ souls. That mediocre job the slacker did? It reflects on everyone he works with. Slackers make the rest of the team look bad, cause everyone to lose productivity, and may cost the co-workers and the employer time, money, and respect-all because one jackass didn’t want to do what was expected of him.

Slackers do more (less?) than just fail to pull their weight. They are typically the ones who liberally slobber over gossipy tidbits-usually completely irrelevant to the job at hand-that undermine their managers or their team. These slackers are the ones who deny responsibility for everything, assume responsibility for nothing, and don’t seem to be accountable to anybody. They may have a cliquish gaggle of fawning admirers, or they may be the person no one likes. They always bring everyone else down.

 

Slackers blame everyone else

 

People who make things up, twist the words of others to the point of being unrecognizable, assume they know what someone else’s next words are going to be, and then abdicate their responsibilities based on those things torpedo even the best organizations.
i-m-always-disappointed-when-a-liar-s-pants-don-t-actually-catch-on-fire-t-shirt-road-kill-t-shirts-1

 

Co-workers victimized by this office gossip and finger-pointing blame-shifter tend to hate her. Passionately. She is the one who is ever quick to take credit that belongs elsewhere. Her co-workers know who she is and she makes their work lives miserable. They avoid her whenever possible, which means the rest of the team is missing a cog. She sows discord, foments distrust, and utterly destroys office morale. Naturally, none of that is ever her fault.

The Slackers Handbook

 

Insidious slackers can be at any level of a company. They can be managers, owners, clerical workers, temps, paraprofessionals, and professionals. When I hear that a lawyer does not want to re-revise that contract for the third time, or when I see a doctor unresponsive to his patient’s actual complaints, I have to wonder why they’re even in the office. I identify them as slackers. It’s their jobs to pay attention to details. Not only are they letting their clients or patients down in a devastating way, they’re compromising their own integrity in the process. Maybe they’ve got so much integrity they think they have some to spare. (Hint: they don’t.)

 

throat punch douche

 

I always hope that mercy takes a day off when slackers get called out for their prevarications and defamations. Dishonest? A cheat? Trying to pull a fast one and hoping no one notices? Stabbing someone in the back? Getting fired should be the least of their worries. There is a reason for civil and criminal penalties. By intentionally badmouthing someone else and by interfering with the productivity of others, such people deserve to reap the rewards of such nefarious activities.

Just desserts are sweetest when they are observed, not consumed first-hand.

Have integrity. Don’t be a slacker.

 

How Did You Arrive at Non-Belief?

Sometimes I am asked how I came to be atheist. The short answer is that I was born that way.

No one is born with a religious belief system – our parents and others have to tell us the stories and indoctrinate us with their religion. That’s why there are so many Hindus in India, so many Jews in Israel, so many Muslims in Arabia, and so many Christians in America. We are indoctrinated into the religion of our parents. No Buddhist kid surprises his Christian parents with his full-blown understanding of the sutras as soon as he can talk, just like no Christian preschooler tells his Hindu parents that the only way to heaven is to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior. We all have to be taught religion.

I think some kids are born skeptical. I think I was, and I see those traits very strongly in my oldest and youngest nephews and in my oldest niece. My youngest niece and middle nephew are plenty smart, as is my son, but they don’t have the attitude of “Nuh-uh, you’ll have to prove that to me!” and the excitement inherent in “That’s so cool! How’d that happen?” that the other three do.

DA Presbyterian Church

Presbyterian Church, Des Arc, Arkansas (Source: Kevin Stewart)

My mom is Presbyterian and my dad was Catholic. There was no Catholic church in Des Arc, Arkansas, where I grew up. The Presbyterian Church had been founded by my mother’s ancestors when they first came to Prairie County in the 1800’s, so naturally, that’s where we were taken as kids. The ceiling was pressed tin, and I cannot begin to guess how many times I counted those decorative squares out of sheer boredom.

In Sunday school, we were taught all the usual stories. One of my earliest memories is of sitting in the Sunday school classroom coloring a picture of Daniel in the lion’s den and listening to the teacher explain that God had closed the mouths of the hungry lions so they wouldn’t eat Daniel. I remember thinking, “Nuh-uh. They just weren’t hungry, or there was some other reason.”

By that age (probably by about 6), I already knew the truth about Santa, and had ruined it for my sister and one of our friends. My sister and our friend Mischelle will say how mean I was – truthfully, I think I was just so delighted and excited to have my suspicions confirmed that I couldn’t wait to tell them. They were about 4 or 5 when I ruined Christmas for them forever, and neither one has ever, ever forgiven me.

When I was a little older, I realized that the weekly sermon was supposed to be based on the Bible readings that were part of each church service. I started opening the Bible and reading the verse along with the minister, then reading the passages that led up to it and beyond it. So many times I wanted to raise my hand and tell the minister that he was wrong – if he had read the verses that came just before or just after, he would realize how off-base he was. He was taking the verse out of context and building a brand new story around it, and assigning it meaning it didn’t have.

Then I started reading other parts of the Bible in church just so I didn’t have to listen to the inane ramblings from the pulpit. I came across Judges 19, and at that point I could not accept that there was anything good about these stories at all. A few years ago, I reinterpreted the atrocities of that chapter in a short story set in the modern era. It won a scary short story contest.

Concordant readings and the hymns were excruciating. Eventually, I decided I wouldn’t say or sing the words I thought were silly or that I didn’t agree with. I refused to say out loud that I was a worthless sinner (I didn’t think I was) or that I wanted divine intervention in anything (because I didn’t think it would happen). Then I realized that the whole thing was vapid and insipid. It was just another Santa Claus story.

Illustration by Dori Hartley

Illustration by Dori Hartley

When I was about 9 or 10, I threw a major hissy fit over church. It was a Sunday morning. We were ready to walk out the door for Sunday school and I had had enough. I remember screaming at my mom, telling her that the whole thing was stupid, that God wasn’t real, that God was really mean and horrible, and that going to church was pointless because praying was stupid and the words we were supposed to repeat every week were stupid and made no sense – hey, I was 9 or 10, so everything I didn’t like was “stupid,” right?

My Catholic dad stepped into the middle of my meltdown and suggested that Mom go ahead to church with my brother and sister. He said that he’d have me watch church on television while they were gone. After I calmed down, he started telling me about the Mover of the First Part. (It wasn’t until I got to college that I realized he was teaching me Aristotelian philosophy and basically regurgitating Thomas Aquinas’s apologetic Summa Theologica.) Of course, my question was, “Who made the Prime Mover, then?” Dad didn’t have an answer, but he said we had to watch church on TV since he had promised Mom.

Oral RobertsHe told me that there was a TV preacher named Oral Roberts who started every broadcast by saying, “Something GOOD is going to happen to you!” That’s who we would watch. Sure enough, he turned on Oral Roberts, and sure enough, those words came out of the preacher’s mouth the very first thing.   As soon as the words were said, Dad switched the channel over to a John Wayne movie.

John Wayne Maureen Ohara

Dad and I spent many Sundays watching John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda while mom and my siblings were at church. I developed a great appreciation for Westerns (including the spaghetti variety), and was introduced to all-time favorites like the Cheyenne Social Club and Paint Your Wagon, World War II standards like Mister Roberts and Donovan’s Reef, and straight-up classics like The Quiet Man.

fonda-kelly-stewart-social-club I still had to go to church fairly regularly, but after that I always sat next to my dad, and we always found something to giggle about during the hymns and whisper about during the rest of the service. We made an effort to twist things to the absurd. Having a secret, fun co-conspirator made me feel better about having to go in the first place.

I don’t think Dad was atheist. He may have been agnostic, but I suspect he made Pascal’s Wager, because he always told us to get him a priest if we knew he was dying. Not a Presbyterian minister, even though he eventually joined the church and even became a deacon – he wanted a Catholic priest. As it turned out, my father died very suddenly, and there was no time to get a priest. Atheist me insisted that we call one, though, just to satisfy that need he had – because that’s what he had always said he wanted. It was a matter of respect.

When I was about 12, Mom insisted that I take Catechism classes – part of the training for joining the Presbyterian church, even though I insisted that there was no way I would do that. I dutifully memorized the Bible verses and the doctrinal responses. The Presbyterian Church in Des Arc had a tiny congregation, and I was the only student at that time. I spent more time questioning the sense of the verses and the responses to the doctrinal questions, asking “Why?”, and demanding answers to the unanswerable than anything else. The minister’s answers never satisfied me, mostly because things like “God’s ways are mysterious” and “We aren’t meant to know” are completely unsatisfactory answers to someone whose brain thrives on and revels in knowledge. When I was given an answer that rested on convoluted or circular reasoning, it drove me further away from belief, not closer. I never joined the church.

ASES Green Hall

Green Hall, All Saints Episcopal School, Vicksburg, MS

My sis and I were sent to an Episcopal boarding school for high school. During the course of the curriculum, and especially in our senior year, we had to take a class that entailed reading the Bible and being tested on it. I actually looked forward to having this class, because the priest who taught it, Father John Babcock, was very approachable, friendly, and related well with all of us kids.

Unfortunately, a different priest taught that class my senior year. He was more academic than Fr. Babcock, and had us write long, college-like essays on exams. For the midterm, he asked a question that started, “Why do you think…?” Silly me took the bait. I told him exactly what I thought about whatever the topic was. I got a C, which, if you know anything about perfectionist me, you will understand really upset me. When I went to talk with him about it, he told me that I was wrong, so he couldn’t give me a better grade. I was totally pissed – my opinion was only worth a C because it didn’t match his ridiculous opinion.

fearandtremblingAt Colgate, one of the first classes I took my freshman year was the Philosophy of Religion. Aristotle, Kant, Kierkegaard, Aquinas – this is the class where I read about the Prime Mover and remembered my dad’s explanation from a decade before. None of the explanations that any of the religious apologists offered were satisfactory. The reading selection in that class that hit me the hardest was Kierkegaard’s explanation of the Isaac story in Fear and Trembling. It seemed to me to be the stuff of tortured logic. If religion was the source of morality, then how could Isaac’s sacrifice be morally wrong but religiously right? There was no answer to this except the “leap of faith.” Nope – not only was that answer not good enough, it was ethically reprehensible.

If none of these religious stories and doctrines made sense to me, how could they make sense to other people? WHY did they make sense to other people? I decided to try to find out. I went to different religious services on campus, both Catholic and Protestant. I talked to a friend who went from Colgate to Harvard Divinity School to be a rabbi. (He told me a few years later that the rabbi thing didn’t work out, because anyone who pays attention in Divinity School ends up atheist. He’s a doctor now in Springfield, Massachusetts.) I spoke with a cousin who is a Presbyterian minister. I’ve spoken with friends who have strong faith.

When I ask people why they believe, they tend to get defensive instead of explaining their rationale. My asking them why they believe is not meant to be antagonistic – I really want to know, because to this day I don’t understand why normally rational, compassionate people would buy into this whole faith thing. “You’ve just got to believe,” they tell me. No. No, I do not.

My mother once remarked that because I went to Catholic and Episcopalian services, I must like the ceremonial flavor of the more ritualized  “high church” sects. I wasn’t going to church so I could get religion. I was going to try to figure out what other people got out of it. What I concluded was that the ritual seems to calm and comfort the people who attend these churches. Ritual is comforting. We know what to expect, we know what we are supposed to do. Ritual, like meditation, has a calming effect on the human psyche.

Rituals need a purpose, though, and I have never found purpose in a purely religious ritual. I see the point of the ritual in a wedding. I can see the point of ritual when it comes to memorial or funeral services. I see the point of other rituals that mark life transitions, like the naming of a baby or graduation or the passage to adulthood. I understand why human beings want these rituals to formalize life transitions. It doesn’t mean they are any less real if there is no ritual, but it does recognize the transition publicly, and we all want our major life changes to be recognized by others. Recognizing those life transitions is one of the main reasons I got ordained with the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and filed my credentials with the Pulaski County Clerk. Those rituals need to be recognized regardless of religious persuasion or non-belief.

When I got married, I agreed to a church wedding. Mostly that was because a church wedding was important to my beloved mother-in-law, who has a very strong faith. She knew this was the only wedding either of her children was likely to have, and it needed to be right for her. Skip and I would have been perfectly happy – and just as married – to have a judge say the words and sign the certificate on our front porch, followed, of course, by a kegger for our law school buddies. Instead, we were married in a giant church and had a reception at a country club.

We had our child baptized for the same reason – not because I wanted to do it, but because it was important to his grandparents. We took him to church when he was about 5 or 6 because we thought he needed to have had that experience. In retrospect, that was an exercise we didn’t need to put him through. I enjoyed the young adult Sunday school class that we went to there, though, and a few of those classmates I still call friends.

I’ll never forget the Sunday the minister of that church decided to teach our class. We were reading something attributed to Paul, and I was challenging at least half of what the blessed apostle wrote.

“Good! It’s good to question your faith!” the minister said to me, and the entire room erupted into laughter. My Sunday school classmates all knew I was atheist, but evidently word had not filtered up to the pulpit.

“I’m not questioning my faith,” I answered. “I’m questioning yours.”

So, I never “arrived” at non-belief. Truthfully, I didn’t have to. I never found a reason to leave non-belief in the first place.

Elected Officials and the Nonreligious in the Military: Stupidity Abounds

It just doesn’t stop. The stupidity rife through the ranks of our elected officials, I mean.

Evidently, everyone in our military is religious, or becomes so upon facing death. Despite the fact that nonreligious make up as much as a third of our young people, and the fact that the numbers of the nonreligious are growing, Congress just can’t get its collective head out of its collective ass long enough to realize that by saying the rude, insensitive things about nonreligious people, they aren’t making anything better.

Wednesday, New Jersey Democratic Rep. Rob Andrews offered an amendment to the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act that would allow humanists or members of ethical culture groups to join the chaplain corps. Andrews’ idea was to help members of the military who don’t believe in God, but want someone to talk to about things without having to seek a doctor or a psychotherapist – something that can kill a military career, or so I’m told.

Not surprisingly, Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee objected vehemently. These idiots don’t think that non-religious people can offer something similar to spiritual counseling, much less be humanistic or ethical in their interactions with grieving families, dying soldiers, or nonreligious personnel dealing with angsty issues. In fact, these ignorant jackasses actually said that humanists and ethicists would offend dying soldiers or their families – never mind that those dying soldiers or their families might be just as offended by a Christian chaplain telling them they are in in the hands of a god they don’t believe in.

Atheists “don’t believe anything,” said Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas). “I can’t imagine an atheist accompanying a notification team as they go into some family’s home to let them have the worst news of their life and this guy says, ‘You know, that’s it – your son’s just worms, I mean, worm food.'”

This guy just makes me see red.

If someone is a humanist chaplain, that is not something he or she would say. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” comes to mind. Or, “Who can we call to be with you at this difficult time?” Or, “I feel the tragedy of your [son or daughter’s] loss. What can I do to help you through this difficult time?” Not “Oh, hey, your kid died. He’s worm food. See ya.” What a jackass to even think such a thing. And a humanist chaplain isn’t the only type of humanist who wouldn’t say that. Frankly, I can’t imagine anyone saying that to someone who is dying or who has just lost a loved one.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) wasn’t much better than his Texas colleague. “This I think would make a mockery of the chaplaincy,” he said. “The last thing in the world we would want to see was a young soldier who may be dying and they’re at a field hospital and the chaplain is standing over that person saying to them, ‘If you die here, there is no hope for you in the future.'”

The complete arrogance of thinking that any nonbeliever even wants his version of heaven after death just astounds me. This is the ultimate in self-absorbed idiocy.

But then there’s Rep. Adam Smith of Washington, the top Democrat on the committee, who called the jackasses out. He said that atheists and humanists do in fact have strong belief systems that they value just as much as Christians value theirs. And he pointed out that there are many atheists in the military, famously the late NFL star Pat Tillman, who died in friendly fire in Afghanistan. “To say that an atheist or a humanist doesn’t believe anything is just ignorant,” said Smith. “The response to the gentleman’s amendment makes me feel all the more the necessity of it.”

Hear, Hear!

The amendment appeared to lack the votes needed to pass on the GOP-majority committee, but maybe that was just because the jackasses brayed louder than those who are sensitive to the needs of all servicemen, religious or not. Here’s a little letter I penned in response to Rep. Conaway’s remarks. I faxed it to his office today.

Rep. Michael Conaway
11th District, Texas 2430
Rayburn House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515
Via Facsimile to (202) 225-1783

Dear Rep. Conaway:

I just saw a video of your remarks pertaining to humanist and ethicist chaplains in the military. I am disgusted and upset by them.

Your comments show absolutely no insight into the emotional needs of a person who is non-religious or is not affiliated with a particular religion. Your words were insensitive, arrogant, and dead wrong. They show a complete lack of empathy for anyone who might think about death and dying in a way other than your particular way.

People who do not believe in a god or who do not adhere to the practices of a formal, recognized religion do not refer to the dead as “worm food” when comforting grieving families or when comforting a dying person. In fact, I cannot imagine that anyone would do that.

According to the Pew Forum on Public Policy and Religion, as many as one-third of people under 30 do not adhere to any particular religion or are nonbelievers. These people are serving in the military right now. By denying them a chaplain who can talk to them about ethical or humanist practices without religion, you deny them access to emotional and ethical support other than through medical personnel. This is something provided to religious members of the military.

Your position is that of an ignorant jackass – you bray loudly about something you obviously know nothing about. Please educate yourself as to what atheism, humanism and ethicism are before you say that atheists, humanists and ethicists believe in “nothing.” “Nothing” could not be further from the truth.

I am not in your state, much less in your district, so I won’t have the pleasure of voting against you in the next election. Believe me, though, I will use every platform available to me to broadcast your rank stupidity and your crass insensitivity to the needs of nonreligious members of the military.

Sincerely,
Anne Orsi

I wrote a similar one to Rep. Fleming. I may write the rest of the committee. I may send Reps. Andrews and Smith flowers, though.

It’s Really Not OK to Pray in Public Schools

Graduation seems to be one of those times during the school year when religion rears its head and wants to elbow its way into the public square, disseminating itself messily all over unwilling captive audiences. This year is no exception.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) got involved in an Arkansas case recently, writing a letter to tell the Riverside School District in Lake City, Arkansas, that plans to pray and sing hymns at its sixth grade graduation were unconstitutional. Variations of two different versions of what happened next have made their rounds. In the first story, the school board, possibly at the behest of the superintendent, decided simply to cancel graduation rather than bow to the law. In the second story, the school board voted to abide by the law, but the parents organizing the graduation said that if they couldn’t pray, then graduation at the school would be cancelled. The upshot was that the sixth grade graduation was indeed cancelled, and the organizing parents decided to hold graduation exercises at a local church instead. More uproar has ensued.

Because apparently we’re the only advocates of separation of church and state to be found in Arkansas, the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers was invited to participate in a radio talk show about the kerfuffle. When Alice Stewart, Mike Huckabee’s former spokesperson and the host of the program, told me that her other guest would be the evangelical preacher who enjoyed the spotlight at our fair state’s National Day of Prayer event at the state capitol, I asked her if she had considered asking a representative of a more progressive variety of Christian – one that supports separation of church and state. She said she didn’t know any.  Right then and there I probably should have directed her to the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Jews, but I didn’t. I agreed to go on the show.

Here’s the TL; DL version of the hosts’s and pastor’s points:

  1. There’s a war on religion.
  2. They’ve done it this way forever, so there’s no harm in allowing them to continue praying at public school events.
  3. The Constitution says we are entitled to the free exercise of religion.
  4. God is the foundation of our founding documents.
  5. Many of our founding fathers went to seminary with certainly the intent that God would be incorporated on our money and in our system and society.
  6. We’ve tried, and we just can’t ever take God, guns, sex, violence, drugs out of school.
  7. God is everywhere in school forever.
  8. Our country is built on the principles of God.
  9. The pledge is a prayer.
  10.  By insisting on leaving religion out of school functions, atheists impose their views on everyone else.
  11. It’s more important to keep faith in schools than anywhere.
  12. It’s impossible to take God out of schools because too many religious people are in the schools, and god is in the songs that the school choir sings, plays that the school theater performs, civics and history books, and because there is a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who taught the nation about the Bible.
  13. We shouldn’t have to wait for another bombing or mass shooting before a school assembly prays again.
  14. We should not have to care about the rights of minorities in public schools.
  15. FFRF wanted graduation stopped.
  16. Public prayer in school isn’t illegal.
  17. God calls the light day and the darkness night and no one can change that because it’s an order from god. (If you listen closely you can detect that I nearly busted out laughing here. Sorry.)
  18. If the Constitution allows the pledge, which contains a prayer, then it is resolved that all prayer should be allowed in schools.
  19. Religion never changes.
  20. Jesus said always to pray and not to think.
  21. The word that God gives Christians is in Psalms 1.
  22. God’s law is higher than Constitutional law.
  23. If we say “under God” in the pledge at school, we are obligated to continue praying in schools so as not to be hypocritical.

I know, I know. Our first response is “What? They actually believe this tripe?” followed immediately by a facepalm and “Oh, boy. They really believe this tripe.”

So…

1. The War on Religion

Evidently I burned my draft card on this one. Personally, I couldn’t care less what religion someone else practices, as long as they do no harm with it. (Yeah, I know. That’s impossible, unless they keep it totally to themselves, which they never do.) They can have all the fantasies they like about what happens after death, and no one else is affected. We are, however, affected by their dogmatic attempts to indoctrinate our children, deny freedom of conscience to our children and to us, and to curtail the rights of other people based on their fantasies and what someone said their invisible friend wanted more than two millennia ago. So, practice religion all you want – just keep it strictly to yourself.

2.  They’ve done it this way forever, so why make them change?

Ah, yes, the appeal to tradition. As logical fallacies go, this one is pretty easy to dismantle. It is also symptomatic of the traditional conservative state of mind, which holds that progress is bad.

Let’s say you’ve got an employee who regularly steals from the till. You’ve warned him time and time again that if he doesn’t stop, you’re going to take legal action. He doesn’t stop. You call the cops. Do we seriously expect the police to say that since you never called them before, you can’t call them now?

Or, let’s say your neighbor is a wife-beater (the POS, not the shirt). He’s beaten his wife at least weekly for all 40 years of their marriage, and your long-suffering family has witnessed it. One day, you’ve finally had enough. The wife has two black eyes and a bloody nose after one of their little tiffs, and you call the cops. Do you want to live in a society where the police say, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but she let him beat her up for 40 years, so she has to keep letting him beat her up. Just use ear plugs and avert your eyes if you don’t want to be aware of it”?

I didn’t think so.

Illegal is illegal. Period.

3. The Constitution says we are entitled to the free exercise of religion.

It sure does. And then it says that the state can’t tell us how to practice our religions. This is the part the religious right loves to forget as they strive to use government-sponsored events to impose their version of God on the rest of us. And impose it they do – at public invocations, in schools, in the laws they pass, and on billboards across the country.  Only one of those instances is actually legal. (Hint: it’s the one that has nothing to do with government.)

4. God is the foundation of our founding documents.

The only foundational document that mentions anything about a God is the Declaration of Independence, which wouldn’t have been a founding document if the rebellion had not been successful. In its introduction, it mentions “Nature’s God” and which in the famous second sentence of its preamble says: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” One of those unalienable rights, which was added to the Constitution 15 years after the Declaration (it wasn’t there to begin with), says that Americans are free to practice whatever religion they choose, and that the state cannot tell them what religion to practice.

It’s the second part that people like Rev. Hunt and Ms. Stewart and their fundamentalist friends have so much trouble with. In fact, they prefer to ignore it, under the short-sighted and arrogant assumption that their version of religion would naturally be the one established by the government.

5. Many of our founding fathers went to seminary with certainly the intent that God would be incorporated on our money and in our system and society.

Sometimes when religious people say idiotic things, we have to graciously understand that they are grasping at straws. I certainly hope that Ms. Stewart knows the facts don’t support this assertion of hers. I hope she has a better grasp of history than what this particular assertion indicated.

First, let’s look at the education opportunities in the late colonial period. Actual colleges were not easy to find – or, maybe they were, since there were so few of them. New College (now Harvard), the College of William and Mary, the Collegiate School (now Yale), the College of New Jersey (Princeton), the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania), King’s College (now Columbia), Rhode Island College (now Brown), Queen’s College (now Rutgers), and Dartmouth College were the only choices for formal higher education, and the last three in that list were founded after 1760, so it’s unlikely the founders attended them. Without exception, all were associated with religious institutions. However, like the colleges and universities sponsored by religious institutions in the 21st century, none of them was strictly a seminary. Since the founding fathers all obtained what formal education they got prior to the Revolution, these nine schools – and probably actually only six schools – were their only choices unless they opted to go abroad. A number of them whose families had money did indeed send their sons abroad for education at places like Cambridge, London’s Middle Temple (one of the famous Inns of Court where British barristers were – and are – formally trained, not a religious institution), and various schools on the European continent.

So, let’s take a closer look at the oldest six. By 1750, the era when the founding fathers who went there would have been enrolled, only 15% of Harvard graduates were seminarians. William and Mary, the second oldest institution, was founded with only one-third of its resources dedicated to a college of divinity, and separation of church and state was already a thing in Virginia prior to the end of the Revolution thanks to the work of George Mason and James Madison on the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Yale was not founded as a seminary, but as a college of the arts and sciences. Princeton was founded primarily to train Presbyterian ministers, but by the 1760’s was focused on the disciplines valued by the Enlightenment: philosophy, science, and the arts, and by the 1780’s no longer housed a seminary at all. Penn was never a seminary, but was founded, mostly on the advocacy of atheist Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin, as a liberal arts institution. Columbia, also, was founded as a liberal arts school. According to its website, “various groups compet[ed] to determine its location and religious affiliation. Advocates of New York City met with success on the first point, while the Anglicans prevailed on the latter. However, all constituencies agreed to commit themselves to principles of religious liberty in establishing the policies of the College.”  Brown University was founded as a Baptist college – not Southern Baptist, but traditional, original, New England Baptist – although Congregationalists, Quakers, and Anglicans all had significant representation on its original board of trustees. Its Charter, granted by George III in 1764, declared its purpose was to prepare students “for discharging the Offices of Life with usefulness & reputation” by providing instruction “in the Vernacular and Learned Languages, and in the liberal Arts and Sciences.” It was not a seminary. Rather, the charter specified specifically that “into this liberal and catholic institution shall never be admitted any religious tests, but on the contrary, all the members hereof shall forever enjoy full, free, absolute, and uninterrupted liberty of conscience.”

But easily half or more of the founding fathers of the United States of America had no formal education at what we would now consider a secondary level. The state of education in colonial America was such that most people were taught to read and write at home, and additional education was often sought with private tutors. For the most part, our founding fathers were autodidacts – self-taught, widely read, and definitely products of the Enlightenment. They never stopped questioning their world, reading, debating topics as diverse as philosophy, agriculture, and astronomy, and most importantly, they never stopped learning.

I think it is extremely safe to assume that not a single founding father decided to go to a seminary so he could foment a revolution and put his god on the money of a new nation, much less so he could violently rebel against his sovereign specifically to get more religion.

 6. We’ve tried, and we just can’t ever take God, guns, sex, violence, drugs out of school.

Maybe it’s just me, but when the good Reverend Hunt said this, I couldn’t help but notice that his deity was lumped in with all the other bad things we don’t want in schools. The clear implication of his statement was that we can try, but we ought to just give up. Sorry, Rev. Hunt, but no can do – not as to any of these things.

7. God is everywhere in school forever.

Indeed, our imaginary friends can be wherever we choose for them to be. Inflicting them on other people is unacceptable, though.

8. Our country is built on the principles of God.

The principles of God that I see when I read the Bible are intolerance, caprice, narcissism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence. Are these the principles upon which our country is built? If so, it’s beyond time for reform.

Rev. Hunt probably meant the Ten Commandments, though, because before they were written down about 500 BCE, people just went around killing, coveting, disrespecting their elders, stealing, and bearing false witness all harum-scarum and willy-nilly. Never mind that Egypt’s laws (3000 BCE), Mesopotamia’s Lagash Code (2400 BCE), Sumeria’s laws (2200 BCE), and Hammurabi’s Code (1795 BCE) predate Leviticus by much more than a millennium, and Sparta’s laws (800 BCE) predate it by 400-500 years. Other codes of law from roughly the same time period as Leviticus are well documented, including the Dharmasutras of the Hindu tradition and the evolved versions of all those laws that went before, as well as Roman law (550 BCE), the Zoroastrian Avesta (600 BCE), China’s Zheng laws (500 BCE),  and Draco’s Greek law (620 BCE). It is worth mentioning that our trade and maritime laws originated with ancient Phoenicia (~1200 BCE).

Don’t pretend to know legal or social history if you look at it only through the opaque lenses of your Mosaic blinders.

9. The pledge is a prayer.

In the 1962 case of Engel v. Vitalethe Supreme Court held that prayer led by government officials was not permitted in schools, but did not address whether the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance rendered it a prayer. Justice Douglas, in his concurring opinion, said that he believed the religion “honeycombed” throughout our federal laws was not permissible, and that the words “under God” should not stand – and that, yes, the pledge was indeed a prayer.

A 2004 case, Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow  challenged the pledge directly, but was dismissed because the plaintiff, a noncustodial parent of the school child in question, lacked standing.

Therefore, I sincerely hope the good Reverend will be willing to repeat this assertion that it is resolved that the Pledge is a prayer the next time some godless heathen decides to file suit to challenge the inclusion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, because it get us one step closer to getting the words stricken.

10.  By insisting on leaving religion out of school functions, atheists impose their views on everyone else.

There’s a difference between religious neutrality and forced atheism. If we were forcing our atheism on the impressionable little school children, we’d be hosting “There is No God” as the cool after-school activity to go to instead of tolerating the insidious presence of “Good News Clubs” that indoctrinate children. We’d be demanding that the school choirs sing Tim Minchin songs instead of classical choruses. We’d start every event with an announcement that there is no god, and repeatedly remind any believers out there that they are stupid to still have an imaginary friend. As it is, we may think those things, but we don’t say them in government settings and we certainly don’t try to scare the shit out of their children to ensure the little darlings will come around to our way of thinking.

Religious neutrality means no one says anything one way or another about deities, religions, or the way those imaginary beings think we should conduct ourselves, much less what they plan to do with us when we die.

11. It’s more important to keep faith in schools than anywhere.

On the contrary, school is exactly the place where things should be questioned and not taken on faith. School is the place where facts should be tested, experiments performed, empirical evidence gathered and assessed, and ideas debated. Critical thinking skills need to be emphasized much, much more. Our children should be taught never to take anything on faith, but to investigate and find truth for themselves. Otherwise, all we are doing is drilling information into their heads without giving them the skills to apply it to reality and to the betterment of the world. I don’t know about you, but I want more for my child than for him to be an automaton  that dully repeats whatever he’s been told. Faith is the last thing we need to teach our children in school.

12. It’s impossible to take God out of schools because too many religious people are in the schools, and god is in the songs that the school choir sings, plays that the school theater performs, civics and history books, and because there is a federal holiday honoring Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who taught the nation about the Bible.

Where do I even begin?

Okay, so, there are religious people in schools. Sure. There are religious people everywhere. It does not necessarily follow that everything that comes out of the mouths of those religious people is religious. In a school setting, they need to keep their religion to themselves and teach kids how to think critically, how to solve problems, and what a logical fallacy is. (Maybe by teaching logical fallacies, they will recognize the ones they use on themselves to keep religion alive.)

God is in the songs that the choir sings. Because ecclesiastical patronage is responsible for a considerable chunk of the greatest art and music in history, we neither can nor should avoid some religious songs or art. There is plenty of secular art and music out there, though, and it also should be taught. And if the public school is performing a religious play, someone needs to let the ACLU, Americans United, and FFRF know so a lawsuit can be filed – because it’s illegal. Period.

Religious history is part of human history. The history of the Catholic Church’s political maneuverings is valid study – it has had great effect on the politics of medieval Europe, and despite its lack of stature as an official religion for governments now, it still wields a mighty sword. Its complicity in the Holocaust, for example, should not be downplayed, nor should its interference in human rights issues in places like Africa, where it has helped to spread the HIV/AIDS pandemic by preaching against condom use, and Ireland, where women die because their lives are considered less valuable than the fetuses they carry, sometimes against their will. Religion has a great deal to do with the denial of women’s rights in the Middle East and Central Asia. So, yes, study religion’s effect of world history and current events.

Do not ever make the mistake of teaching public school children which religion is “better” or “correct.” That is establishment of religion, and in this country it is illegal.

And now for Martin Luther King, Jr., who apparently taught us all about the Bible so now we honor him with his very own holiday. I hardly know how to begin to address this idiotic statement, so I’ll just heave a huge sigh and delve in.

Dr. King was indeed a minister. He did indeed connect his faith to his fervent advocacy for civil rights, and frequently invoked his deity and the teachings of the Bible. He wasn’t assassinated for being a minister, though. He died because he was an extremely effective advocate for civil rights and for peace. Dr. King was much more than a minister, and his civil rights and anti-war activism is the reason for that holiday, not his messages from any pulpit. He pioneered peaceful civil disobedience to a degree this country had never before seen. He worked for racial parity and desegregation, something the Bible definitely does not advocate. He worked tirelessly to end an unjust war. The war he wanted to fight was against poverty and the disparate treatment of human beings in American society. That war, at least, was a noble one.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the greatest orators of the 20th century, if not one of the greatest orators in all of American history. His work was rewarded with international acclaim and he was the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize because of it. He was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Four people have federal holidays in their honor: two of them were presidents, one is popularly credited with “discovering” the continent, and the fourth is Dr. King. Could he have done this work without being a minister? Absolutely. Unequivocally. Does he deserve the acclaim he has received? Without a doubt, yes. But not for being a minister. He deserves every accolade he has ever received because of what he did for race relations in the United States 100 years after the Civil War, and for using his popularity and influence to end a horrifically unjust war and to advocate for human rights.

Dr. King didn’t teach Americans the Bible. He taught us something much more important: that all men must be treated equally and fairly. We would certainly appreciate it if the religious right would demonstrate that they understand that lesson.

13. We shouldn’t have to wait for another bombing or mass shooting before a school assembly prays again.

When that next bombing or mass school shooting happens, we still shouldn’t pray – at least, not in school and not as part of a government-sponsored event. Prayer won’t undo it, prayer won’t prevent it, and prayer won’t stop it mid-horror.

Do we really lack so much creativity as a society that we cannot devise another way to honor the dead or mark a tragedy without thanking God for it? Do we really think a prayer will stop malicious and crazy people from socially aberrant behavior? If so, church shootings wouldn’t happen, and legislatures wouldn’t have to make church-goers feel safer by allowing them to carry weapons to Sunday services. And isn’t it ironic that we thank a god for such monstrous atrocities and celebrate the deaths of those killed by saying they’ve been “called home” to that deity? How screwed up is that, anyway?

And this leads us back to good old Epicurus (341 BCE – 270 BCE), another philosopher roughly contemporaneous with the scribes of Leviticus:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then why is there evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

14. We should not have to care about the rights of minorities in public schools.

There is so much insensitivity in this statement that my mind nearly boggled. The majority rules when votes are counted for candidates. When the candidate elected by the majority takes his oath of office, though, he represents everyone, not just those who elected him, and he owes a duty to everyone, not just those who elected him.

We do not operate our society by doing what the majority of people want to do just because the majority want it done. We also look at the public policy behind doing things, the ramifications of doing them, and the overall effect on society.

We also don’t squash the little guy under our heels just because he is poor, speaks a different language, is mentally handicapped, physically challenged, from another country, homosexual, short, illiterate, fat, old, sick, red-haired, of a different racial derivation than we are, of a different religious persuasion, or for any other reason. It’s just plain wrong. When will the Christian right get this through their thick skulls? Seriously, what jackasses!

15. FFRF wanted graduation stopped.

One of the reasons the uber-conservative media is so good at persuading its watchers and listeners that the boogeyman is at the door is because when the truth doesn’t suit them, they change the facts to fit their narrative.

Benghazi. Obama was a foreign college student. Planned Parenthood exists to provide abortions. Shirley Sherrod is a racist. FFRF’s intent.

They make us refute their fake facts, and thereby deprive us of the time to make our points. To borrow a phrase from Christopher Moore, this is heinous fuckery most foul. If you have to lie to make your point, you obviously have a crappy argument to begin with. Go home. You’ve forfeited the game.

16. Public prayer in school isn’t illegal.

The hell it isn’t. See  Engel v. Vitale, supra.

17. God calls the light day and the darkness night and no one can change that because it’s an order from god.

If you listen closely at this point in the segment, you can detect that I nearly laughed out loud here. I apologize for the audible derisive snort. I couldn’t help it. I did, however, have considerable empathy at that moment with David Silverman’s conversation with Bill O’Reilly about the reason for tidal forces. Evidently the good Reverend Hunt is a flat-earther who does not understand the earth’s rotation or heliocentrism. He thinks it gets light and dark because God says so. We’ll just ignore the fact that we have night and day for the same basic reason as we have high and low tides: gravity.

After all, gravity is just a theory.

18. It is resolved, that if the Constitution allows the pledge, which contains a prayer, then it is resolved that all prayer should be allowed in schools.

Well, he was almost right. It is definitely resolved that prayer is not permitted in schools. Engel v. Vitaleremember? But what isn’t resolved is whether or not the words “under God” make the pledge tantamount to a prayer. The atheist that is me thinks it does, and the religious guy that is Reverend Hunt thinks it does. Therefore, the pledge is a prayer and pursuant to the precedent set by Engel v. Vitale and pursuant to the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the pledge shouldn’t be recited any more than the Lord’s Prayer should be.

Resolved.

19. Religion never changes.

The delegates to Vatican II would be interested to learn of this.

So would Martin Luther, who kicked off a pretty serious change in Christianity by tacking those 95 theses to the door of that Wittenberg Church back in 1517. (Okay, fine, so the church door thing may be a bit of a myth. But the invention of the printing press did a heck of a lot to change Christianity because that’s how word of the 95 theses got liberally sprinkled throughout Germany and the rest of Europe.)

In fact, I think the attendees of the Council of Nicea – you know, the meeting at which the books of scripture were either included or jettisoned from what we now call the Bible and the meeting at which the Jesus character was determined to be a god – would find the Rev. Hunt’s assertion patently ludicrous, as would those who attended the other thirteen major ecumenical councils of the last two millennia.

I wonder if Rev. Hunt has a Christmas tree? My money says he is clueless about its pagan roots or somehow thinks no religion changed to accommodate that tradition.

20. Jesus said always to pray and not to think.

Herein lies the biggest problem with religion. “Don’t think,” religious leaders tell us. “Just believe what you’re told.” A gullible, uneducated, ignorant populace is all too willing to accept any popular authority that purports to explain their world.

“You’ve got to have faith,” they say.

I have plenty of faith. I have faith that the sun will rise, because every morning it does, and because scientists have provided a reasonable, testable, consistently provable reason for it happening. I have faith that gravity won’t stop working, for the same reason. I even have faith that my computer will post this little rant when I hit a certain combination of keys – because it’s happened before, because it happens consistently and reliably when I hit those keys, and because there is some computer scientist person who knows how and why it happens. I don’t know how or why, and I don’t pretend to understand it, but because it works reliably and consistently with predictable results, I am satisfied that there is a reasonable explanation for it. It might feel like magic to me, because I just say (type) my incantation and poke my fingers at the right buttons and watch it happen – again and again. But I know people who not only understand why it works, but can tell me why it has stopped working, fix it, and make it work again. Reliably and consistently.

That’s the kind of thing I can have faith in.

21. The word that God gives Christians is in Psalms 1.

Wait wait wait wait wait. Wasn’t the Book of Psalms compiled a long time before the guy who started the whole Christianity thing? Hasn’t the god of the Christians failed to utter one single word to them since that dude’s alleged death in the early first century CE? (Well, except for like, the Book of Mormon, but those people are in a cult and not really Christians, right?) I mean, I thought most of the Psalms were attributed to King David, who lived a full millenium before the Jesus character.

Of course, Christians use the Old Testament, too. But since Christianity hadn’t been invented at the time of the composition of the first Psalm (there’s that old religion changing thing again), it would seem that the Christian god might – just might – not have been talking to Christians back then.

Just sayin’.

22. God’s law is higher than Constitutional law.

Not in the United States of America, it isn’t.

In fact, the original language of the Constitution never once mentions or even refers to any deity or creator. The only time religion is mentioned at all is in the First Amendment, which says government is to keep its hands off religion. The government can’t tell us how to practice religion and can’t tell us not to practice religion. It also can’t tell us that we must practice religion.

This is not Indonesia, Iran, or Saudi Arabia. We do not have to believe in any gods at all, and no one can tell us what version of which of the 3500+ gods man has ever worshipped that we should worship.

And just to make sure that foreign governments were aware of this, John Adams, this country’s second president, included in the Treaty of Tripoli an affirmation of the secular nature of the American government with the following language in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was duly ratified – unanimously – by Congress in 1797:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any  [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

23. If we say “under God” in the pledge at school, we are obligated to continue praying in schools so as not to be hypocritical.

Fine. I won’t say the Pledge, either. Not that I have since I was in elementary school and thought I had to. Actually, I stopped saying the pledge before I was out of elementary school, because by about 5th grade I had had it with religion and with the “because I said so” reasons that I was given for really just about anything. Plus, I thought it was stupid and meaningless to pledge my undying devotion to a piece of cloth. If any piece of cloth could be that important, it would have been the old pink blanket I used to drag around the house when I was a little kid. At least that ratty old thing gave me some comfort and kept me warm.

Rev. Hunt should keep in mind that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t have to say the pledge, either, because doing so violates the rules of their religion.  Neither does anyone else who doesn’t want to, thanks to the Supreme Court’s 1943 ruling in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.

We’re back to that “free exercise” thing that necessarily goes hand-in-hand with the “disestablishment” thing, and the “freedom of speech” thing that necessarily implies freedom of conscience.

We are free to reject religion, to follow our own consciences, and we are free not to have to submit to someone else’s religion.

Even the religious right’s.

 

An earlier version of this entry was posted to What Would JT Do?

Reconstruction, Religion, and Civil Rights

Dave Sept 1983

Dave, September 1983

One of my favorite friends from college is Dave.

Over the last almost 30 years since graduation, we’ve remained in touch. At first it was a phone call or two every year, but with the invention of email (thank you Al Gore!) we’ve managed to become quasi-regular correspondents. I’m a terrible correspondent, usually. I’m guilty of holding an email intending to respond, forgetting about it, then shootingoff one or two sentences to cure my egregious default. I don’t tend to do this with Dave. Oh, there’s the one or two sentence responses, but they tend to be sent pretty promptly – well, promtly for me, anyhow.

No, Dave’s emails provoke long-winded responses from me. Dave and I have never claimed to be politically compatible, but our discussions usually turn up much more areas of agreement than disagreement. See, Dave’s a self-described conservative. Not a Tea Party conservative, absolutely not. Dave’s got two post-graduate degrees – an engineering degree from Dartmouth and an MBA from UVA, so no one has ever accused him of not being a thoughtful, extremely intelligent guy. Well, maybe someone did when we were undergrads together at Colgate, but that only happened because they were drunk.

Dave’s emails have inspired more than one of my blog posts. Today’s is yet another.

Dave wrote me earlier this week, saying,

Thought provoking:

1.      Are the people opposed to same-gender marriage equally opposed to opposite-gender marriages where there is no sex and hence no chance of procreation?

2.      What will same-gender marriage advocates protest for if full marriage rights are granted?  My guess is clean air and water, safer roads, better schools …  Or maybe they won’t protest at all and instead will just get on with their lives like most “normal” people.

‘Tis a silly question, I thought in my best Monty Python accent. Opposition to same-sex marriage tends to be based on religion, not on procreation. And don’t “normal” people get concerned about inequities of our government and culture? So I responded,

  1. Depending on their reason for objecting to same-sex marriage, maybe.
  2. The world won’t be fixed when this one unfairness is resolved. We have lots more to protest. Equal rights for women (the ERA in Arkansas can’t seem to make it out of committee). Equal rights for minorities. Freedom from religion-based laws that restrict freedom of conscience. Access to safe, effective sex education and birth control, including safe abortions. Life and health for kids whose parents would restrict their access to proven and effective medical treatment in the name of religion or pseudoscience. Eradication of preventable disease. Vaccination. Food for the hungry. Replacing dictatorships like North Korea’s and North Dakota’s. A stop to corporate abuses of campaign finance laws. A stop to the corporate abuses of the people who buy their products. Clean air. Clean water. Safer roads. Better schools. Alternative fuels. Safer communities. Rehabilitation of criminals. Job training for criminals. Job training for young people who choose not to continue their traditional educations. Preservation of rain forests. Preservation of threatened and engendered species of plants and animals. Funding of scientific research. Funding of medical research. Space exploration. More charitable giving. Rehabilitation of drug abusers. A stop to unnecessary regulation of anything. Complete nuclear disarmament. An unbiased news media. Free healthcare. Free Tibet.

Need I continue?

Dave wasn’t about to let me off so easily.

1.  Some people just object.
2.  I think that was the point.  Move on to other issues.  And the people opposed  to same-gender marriage won’t have to hear about it anymore. Maybe the people opposed to same-gender marriage will find themselves side-by-side with same-gender marriage advocates on issues where they share common ground. It’s up to them to build on it.

Optimistic?

 

Insert eyeroll here.

I am not in the least optimistic that the vast majority of those opposing same-sex marriage will look for common ground with anyone who does not share their insular opinions. If it happens by accident, sure, but look for it? Don’t make me laugh. They are terrified of anything that shifts their paradigm, of anything that moves their cheese.  Those who can ally themselves over issue 1 (we are at war with Eurasia) will be mortal enemies over issue 2 (we have always been at war with Eastasia), and will come back together over Issue 3 (because we have always been at war with Eurasia), only to become enemies again on issue 4. And often they will not realize that they have changed alliances. Because the enemy has always been Eastasia.

We have a crisis in this country right now. It’s a communication crisis, and it can be blamed on the sound-bite and an “Us vs. Them” mentality. People have much more in common than not. Only occasionally do the different sides actually have different goals. It’s all in how the media or their leaders – or both – spin it to them.

Conservative America traditionally stands for smaller government, which theoretically brings with it lower taxes and greater personal autonomy: “freedom.” Liberal, or Progressive, America traditionally stands for social safety, which theoretically brings with it more government involvement and necessarily higher taxes. What is their common goal? They want to be safe, healthy, and financially stable, because only if they have these things will they have “freedom.”

For more graphs with detailed information about political polarization, go to voteview.com

Political party platforms associated with conservative ideals and with progressive ones change over time. The economic disasters of Reconstruction and the Great Depression caused profound changed in the political affiliations of many Americans. So did the political panic of the Cold War. The demise of the Dixiecrats and the fall of Jim Crow has a lot to do with current political alignments. I’ve seen a violation of the basic tenets in both of these diametrically opposed sides just during my lifetime. Political alignments often define issues, and since for all practical purposes we have limited ourselves to only two parties in the United States, our political parties appear to be polarized. And at the moment, as the chart shows, our two political parties are more polarized than they have ever been since the end of Reconstruction.

At the time of the Civil War, the Republican Party was conservative, but not as much as it is today. In 1860, Republicans not only did not want to “conserve” the status quo (which is the very definition of conservatism), they wanted to bring massive change to the economy of half of the country. The war certainly accomplished that. Outlawing slavery all at once undermined the agrarian business model of the nation, which had been overwhelmingly dependent on slave labor to get crops planted and harvested. The more industrialized north did not feel the devastating economic crisis brought on by this change as greatly as did the primarily agricultural South. Emancipation was the most drastic change in property rights in US economic history – possibly in world economic history. The only comparable situation I can think of is the 1861 emancipation of serfs in the Russian Empire – serfdom in western Europe, on the other hand, disappeared gradually over several centuries.

The two biggest cash crops in the South before the war were cotton and tobacco, followed closely by hemp, rice, and indigo. The primary producers of these crops were the large Southern plantations – farms larger than 200 acres – that used significant slave labor. In 1860, plantations with more than 50 slaves made up 4% of all farms, but grew 32% of all the cotton produced in this country. By 1880, farms of that size constituted less than 1% of all farms, and now were paying wages instead of supporting slaves at subsistence levels. Increased costs to produce the South’s primary sources of income dramatically compromised the economic health of the South.

The stereotypical image of the pre-war plantation is of a rich, idle white family surrounded by complacent slaves who did everything for their masters – from the farm labor and cooking to dressing the ladies and caring for the white children. This image is flawed. The white “masters” typically labored in the fields, too, and always had hired hands – both white and free blacks – in  addition to slaves. Families owning 50 or more slaves were rare. For that matter, families owning any slaves at all were not in the majority of white southerners. Only about a quarter of southern families held slaves,  While wealthier families frequently had a family of slaves in the same house, most southerners were themselves the laborers, the farm hands, and the hired wage earners that they still are today. Most slaves were owned by large planters and worked on the larger plantations. Nevertheless, when the legs are cut out from under the highest-earning industry in a geographic region, the entire region suffers. (No area of 21st century America knows this reality more intimately than Detroit.)

But let’s add other economic costs. At the end of the Civil War in 1865, the Confederate dollar was worthless due to inflation and people in the South had to resort to bartering services for goods. White planters had lost their enormous investment in slaves. They had virtually no capital to pay free workers to bring in crops. Immediately after the war, onerous property taxes were imposed on southern landholders. These taxes were essentially war reparations, and had to be paid in scarce Union dollars. Land owners often could not pay these taxes. The way they had raised money in the past – providing subsistence rather than wages to the families that worked their land to conserve cash income for other purposes – was no longer legal. They had to change their business model entirely, and immediately.

Sharecropping was the answer. Landowners broke up large plantations and rented smaller plots to their former slaves and employees. Almost overnight the South was transformed from a prosperous land-owning populace into a tenant farming agriculture system. The few large landowners who were able to hang on to their property no longer worked the land themselves. Those who were fortunate enough to obtain land at fire-sale prices worked harder than the previous owners to make it produce enough to support their families. Tenant farmers could never hope to wring enough profits out of the land to support themselves in their former lifestyles, unless they were freed slaves, in which case their condition in life was definitely improved.

Now, add to that massive change the fact that for four years Southerners had burned cotton and tobacco rather than allow Union forces to confiscate it. Invading Union troops had devastated the physical structures that constituted the framework of the Southern economic engine, and nearly half of the livestock of the South had been killed during the war. And here’s the kicker: over a quarter of all Southern white men of military age died during the war, leaving their families destitute. Per capita income for white southerners declined from $125 in 1857 to a low of $80 in 1879. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877, but rather than being reconstructed into something viable and prosperous, the South had been further devastated by it. By the end of the 19th century and well into the 20th century, the former Confederacy was locked into a system of poverty. The financial ruin of the South was complete. One hundred and fifty years later, it still has not recovered except in pockets where petroleum production has made the difference.

The resentment of the defeated South at losing the comfort and prosperity it had once enjoyed lit flames of anger among people who had lost nearly everything. That anger was directed externally: toward the slaves they had once depended on or who they had once ordered around with impunity, but who now were raised to the same socioeconomic level as free white laborers almost overnight;  toward the educated, industrialized northern states, which were able to resume their former lives after the war; toward the federal government agents who enforced these changes; and toward the speculators who came to the South with carpetbags full of cash to take advantage of Southern economic desperation.

The only real power or freedom that remained to Southerners was in how they treated each other. Free black people were the poster children of Confederate defeat, and because of their lack of education, unfamiliarity with government processes, lack of representation in government, lack of education, and economic disadvantages, they were easy targets. White supremacy ideology frustrated racial equality and ushered in the  Jim Crow era. Jim Crow laws had an initial side effect of disenfranchising poor whites along with poor blacks, and almost all black people were poor.

Voter turnout dropped considerably, and the United States Supreme Court eventually declared poll taxes unconstitutional. It was more difficult for the federal government to regulate how people behaved toward one another, though. While many white Southerners who had managed to retain more wealth focused on economic issues, the vast majority of impoverished white Southerners were still indignant that they were caught up in the Southern economic crisis. In the late 1800’s “separate but equal” became the law of the land, cast in iron by the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896. Not only was it perfectly legal to treat the different races differently, it was government sanctioned.

Environmental disaster compounded economic disaster when the Great Depression struck. While the stock market crash of 1929 had relatively little to do with the suppressed Southern economy other than to deprive it of what little wealth it had managed to regain, the Dust Bowl had a devastating effect on the still predominantly agricultural South.

The Depression is notorious for high unemployment rates. People who can’t find jobs have no purchasing power. The South was already economically depressed before the 1930’s, and the “stimulus” of the New Deal sometimes extracted more money than the poor South had to spare. The New Deal is responsible for the progressive socioeconomic reforms of social security, minimum wage controls, and farm subsidies, the latter of which allowed poor Southern farmers a measure of economic security they had never before experienced. It cost the worker more in actual cash, though, and established institutionalized inflation that is unstoppable.

With the end of World War II, the Southern Democrats who had signed on to the New Deal because of their constituents’ dire economic situation suddenly faced a civil rights crisis: those uppity women and blacks who had earned a comfortable living during the war did not want to turn loose of the gains they had made. The Southern white man had gone away to fight and lost enough of his dominance that something had to be done quickly to preserve his way of life. And despite the gains made by women and black people, white men were still in charge of the government.

Enter the Dixiecrat. After the Civil War, Southern politicians wouldn’t be caught dead identifying with Lincoln’s Republican party. The South turned overwhelmingly to the Democratic party in the 1870’s, and until the 1990’s – that’s right, only twenty years ago – Republicans were rarely elected at the local level anywhere in the former Confederacy. There was no point in voting in a Republican primary in the South because there were so few Republican candidates. Local elections were normally determined in the Democratic primaries until the Reagan administration managed to make diplomatic inroads with Southern sensibilities. Rev. Jerry Falwell had a lot to do with that, which I’ll explain in a moment. (The South voted for Republicans at the national level, though.)

Really, it’s all Harry Truman’s fault. The economic demands of the New Deal had started a schizophrenia among Southern politicians. Socially conservative politicians, damned if they would let minorities get the best of them, embraced progressive economic ideas that were sold as a way to lift not just the South but the entire country out of poverty. After Franklin Roosevelt’s death, the liberal and progressive Truman (from the border state of Missouri) got a bee in his bonnet about – of all things! – civil rights. The original idea was to end discrimination in the military, since black and Indian soldiers had made amazing contributions to the war effort. The Dixiecrats and their supporters saw the writing on the wall, though. If those minorities got an inch, and they’d take a mile. Discrimination was entrenched in the Southern way of life, and that was a status quo the whites could not tolerate changing. Those uppity Negroes were trying to take the rightful place of white folks all over again. This was Reconstruction Redux.

The Civil Rights movement put an end to the cooperation between Southern Democrats and their northern counterparts. Once again, those damn Yankees were attempting to force massive change on the Southern way of life, and South was not happy about it.

When I was born at the tail end of the baby boom, Jim Crow was alive and well. The outraged Dixiecrats were being forced to desegregate schools. (My rural eastern Arkansas elementary school desegregated in 1968, the year I started first grade.) The Civil Rights Act of 1964 gave the gret-grandchildren of slaves a more effective legal tool to fight the racial discrimination that had been institutionalized all over the country. An amendment to it in 1968 further expanded civil rights.

Since the end of the Civil War, Congress had passed numerous civil rights laws. In 1866 Congress overrode President Andrew Johnson’s veto of a bill that said  anyone born in the U.S., regardless of race, was a U.S. citizen. In 1871, Congress outlawed ethnic violence against black people. (The KKK ignored this law with impunity.) In 1875 Congress attempted to prohibit discrimination in public accommodations, but the Supreme Court struck down the act as an unconstitutional regulation of individual action. Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled Plessy v. Ferguson to do away with the doctrine of “separate but equal,” was decided in 1954. In 1957, the year the National Guard was called out to desegregate Little Rock schools over the objection of segregationists here, the Civil Rights Commission was formed. And in 1964 the broad Civil Right Act prohibiting discrimination was passed – a hundred years after the Civil War had ended. Laws passed in 1968 (the Fair Housing Act) and 1987 (extending nondiscrimination requirements to government contractors) further expanded civil rights.

We are now 150 years and seven generations removed from slavery. Those without a sense of the history of it see the struggle for racial parity as black people being “given” what white people have “earned.” Affirmative action, designed to promote minority interests when all other things are equal, is seen as favoring minorities, and to an extent, it does. Quotas that reflect the actual population are also seen as rewarding those “lazy” people who would otherwise not be qualified. Those who complain are called either racist or realist, depending upon their audience.

We see the same thing in other civil rights struggles. Homosexuals make up more than 10% of our population, but discrimination against them is still legal. (A 2002 Gallup poll found the number to be 9%, but keep in mind that Kinsey’s research found that sexual orientation is more of a question of degree along a spectrum rather that a bright line.) Couched in terms of the civil rights struggle, which same-sex marriage certainly is a part of, the conservative population resists change, preferring to maintain a status quo. By definition, a liberal is progressive in ideals and outlook. A liberal sees change as improvement in the current situation. This is the exact opposite of conservative ideals, which harken back to the “good old days” when “things were better” and “people knew their places.”

Change is scary to those whose mind-set is conservative. Instead of embracing change with all the promise and anticipation of a liberal, the conservative resists with everything in his power.

What’s another thing that poor people tend not to have that wealthier people tend to acquire? Education. The South and Midwest are less educated, more superstitious, and therefore more fearful of the unknown. A lack of desire to educate themselves is an unfortunate characteristic that brands these types so that they are easily recognizable.

Religion in America is symptomatic of these attitudes. The United States has experienced several episodes of Christian revivalism or “Awakening.” These terms refer to a specific period of increased spiritual interest bracketed by declines in religious interest. Revival or awakening happens regularly everywhere in the world where religion is practices. Eras of economic hardship correlate to increased religious revival.  The Enlightenment of the 18th century was a period of spiritual decline marked by searching outside religion for matters of morality and understanding about human nature. The Great Awakening was its philosophical rival in colonial America, and was such a strong movement that its imprimatur is still evident in our national psyche. It was followed by a Second Great Awakening, during which Christian evangelicals really became the institution they now are. Charismatic and emotional speakers rode a circuit to whip the religious audiences into frenzies, and their converts at these tent revivals were so inspired that they carried the word to others, making religious adherence not only fashionable, but necessary for morality. A third Awakening spread especially throughout the Midwest and prompted a new flood of missions to Asia.

Despite the persuasive and educated voices of men like Thomas Payne, Thomas Jefferson, Robert G. Ingersoll, John Dewey, Felix Adler, and George Santayana, the sheer charisma of the evangelicals of the Great Awakenings carried much more weight with a partially literate, largely uneducated public.

We are now in the midst of another Awakening. This Awakening has cemented itself in the disillusioned South and in the Midwest, where the economy of the mostly rural population is largely agrarian and relatively fewer people have higher education. Television and radio have sped and maintained the momentum of this religious movement. I’ll never forget hearing Jerry Falwell (I told you I’d get back to him) decrying secular humanism in the heyday of the Moral Majority. I never understood how he could make “humanism” into a curse word until it dawned on me that the people flocking to listen to him had no idea what it meant.

In this Fourth Awakening, new Christian sects have sprung up like weeds in a previously neatly-tended garden, and the detritus they spread is poison to reason and science. They look backward instead of forward, and are willing to compromise freedoms of conscience to maintain the status quo they treasure. They are the Todd Akins (“Women’s bodies have a way of shutting that whole [pregnancy from rape] thing down”) and Sarah Palins of American politics, and their followers are the Tea Party, and can always be counted on to vote against their own best interest. They are persuaded by sound bites on television and sermons from their ministers. These people are anti-intellectual, uneducated, and irrational. They parrot the words of their religious and political leaders without examining the ideas critically or, apparently, even with any real interest.

Obviously I do not hold much respect for these people. The sign that summed them up for me read, “Keep Government OUT of My Medicare.” The Awakening and the Tea Party both have less traction on the more populated coasts of our country, where people tend to have more education and tend to be exposed regularly to people who are not like them. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it allays fear.

Now, a person who styles himself as a “fiscal conservative” is a different animal altogether from these screaming mobs of illogical idiots with their misspelled signs and their complete misunderstanding of the purpose of any government system. These fiscal conservatives usually bemoan the loss of the Republican party to the religious right and to the anti-intellectuals of the Tea Party. They are right to be concerned. Where reasonable minds can disagree and compromise, unreasoning minds consider dialogue the precursor to capitulating – compromise is to be avoided at all costs.

This is no way to run a government. It is no way to decide public policy. I sincerely wish that rational conservatives would retake control of the Republican party. It’s not that I agree with them, but that I see them as opponents worthy of outreach. I feel like I could work with them, because they will see that we are committed to the same goals, albeit with different ideas as to how to reach them. However, there’s no working with irrational, willfully ignorant, reactionary mobs who see any change at all as a threat to their precious way of life, and who cannot imagine a better future.

 

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho: Pondering the Soul of the World

It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three Abrahamic religions. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process.

His strengths were what enabled him to become the wind.

Respectful Atheism

I am not a Christian.

I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.

I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.

That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.

My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.

My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.

I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.

When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.

His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.

So why did I go to church? I went for my son.

The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.

Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.

Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.

One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.

I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.

In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.

My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.

In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.

Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)

I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.

I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.

I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.

Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?

I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.

Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.

When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.

No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.

I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.

To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.

For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.

Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.

Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.

It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.

We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.

I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.

I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.

I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.

I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.

My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.

I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.

We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.

Gun Control

In the last couple of years I’ve changed my stance on gun control.

I don’t like guns.  They scare the hell out of me, and I see nothing “sporting” about attacking unarmed animals with them in the woods. I don’t own one and I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of having one in my house, despite the fact that my ex-husband had a hunting rifle and a boyfriend had a pistol.

I’ve represented kids with criminal charges involving guns.  I’ve seen bullet holes in children’s bedroom walls from drive-by shootings. I’ve represented women who were threatened with guns by their husbands, boyfriends, and even their sons. I’ve been to funerals of people killed by guns.  I’ve held and hugged a weeping grandmother when a stray bullet in a gang shooting left her favorite grandson, a good boy with an “A” average and college-bound, dead on a dark street in a small town in southeast Arkansas.

I don’t like the attitude of the NRA. It comes across as arrogant, shrill, and combative – not the kind of attitude a responsible gun owner/handler should display, especially around guns.

This is going to sound stupid, probably, but one of the things that tipped the scales for me against gun control was a movie.  It wasn’t just any movie.  It was a movie based on a comic book. Bear with me.  I’ve watched V for Vendetta, a film by the incomparable Wachowski Brothers, multiple times, and I find no fault with its future history philosophy.

Perhaps the helium in my brain is showing, but the point that disarming a populace oppresses the citizens makes sense to me.

One of the very best quotes from the movie is, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  Why?  Because the power to change government, to oversee government, and to demand that government be accountable lies with the people.

There is a poignant scene in this movie in which thousands of unarmed citizens in Guy Fawkes masks confront the well-armed military. As they pour into the open areas on this auspicious night, the astonished military doesn’t open fire. Perhaps it is the sheer numbers of people; perhaps it is the eerie, surreal fact that they are costumed like that seditionist of the past, but for whatever reason, the armed forces of the government holds its fire and allows itself to be overrun. Perhaps it is because the members of the armed forces are citizens, too, and the whole point of the movie is that citizens must require and compel change in the government.

And then there’s this quote, the source of which I’m desperately seeking:

“An armed society is a polite society.
An unarmed society is a police state.
A disarmed society is a tyranny.”

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